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Santa Maria Sun / News

The following article was posted on January 29th, 2013, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 13, Issue 47 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 13, Issue 47

Safe schools, healthy kids

The Sun talks to local experts about Obama's proposal to improve mental health services

BY AMY ASMAN

It’s been about a month and a half since Adam Lanza opened fire at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., killing 20 kindergartners and seven adults.

It still remains unclear what motivated the 20-year-old to first fatally shoot his mother, Nancy, at their Newtown home and then turn his gun on the students and staff at Sandy Hook. The media have cited a litany of potential causes, including Lanza’s alleged mental health issues and a strained relationship with his mother.

The tragic incident sparked a national debate on gun violence that inspired President Barack Obama—just days before his second inauguration—to present a four-step plan his administration says will “better protect our children and our communities from tragic mass shootings like those in Newtown, Aurora, Oak Creek, and Tucson.”

According to the plan, those steps include closing background check loopholes to keep guns out of dangerous hands; banning military-style assault weapons and high-capacity magazines and taking other commonsense steps to reduce gun violence; making schools safer; and increasing access to mental health services.

Say what you will about the first three steps; it’s the fourth that has piqued the interest of mental-health professionals nationwide.

Jill Bolster-White, executive director of Transitions Mental Health Association (T-MHA), which provides services in San Luis Obispo and Northern Santa Barbara counties, said mass shootings “strike cold fear” in her heart, both as a mother and a mental-health-care advocate.

“I am a parent, so it was really hard to separate my reaction to the Sandy Hook tragedy, because I actually have a first-grader I drop off at school every day,” Bolster-White told the Sun in a recent interview.

“But I hold my breath about what will be done [because] I know how incidents like these can increase stigma irrespective of the diagnosis. Automatically, conclusions are being drawn and assumptions are being made,” she said. “I have been pleased to see that mental health has finally become part of the discussion. I think that’s the most hopeful sign of this whole tragic incident. I think it has some traction.”

In his plan, Obama calls for a new, $155-million initiative, Project AWARE (Advancing Wellness and Resilience in Education), to provide “mental health first aid” training to teachers and other adults who interact with students on a regular basis.

The training would enable those adults to reach out to children who are experiencing mental health problems and to refer them to the treatment they need. Additionally, the initiative would help get treatment for at-risk youth ages 16 to 25, and require private and government health-insurance providers to cover mental health services.

“Mental health care in the school setting is really critical. It helps us save money and heartache down the road,” Bolster-White said. “The more people know about and understand mental illness ... the more comfortable they’ll feel helping someone.

“I think people are afraid of what they don’t understand,” she said. “When things are happening within the brain that impair functioning, that’s very scary because we can’t control it,”

T-MHA offers numerous resources to local residents, including its own form of first aid mental health training and a 24-hour hotline, 1-800-549-4499.

Judi Nishimori, associate executive director of the nonprofit Santa Maria Valley Youth and Family Center, called the president’s initiative “long overdue.”

The center contracts out therapy and short-term counseling services to school districts in Santa Maria, Orcutt, and Guadalupe.

She said approximately 85 percent of children who receive mental health services receive them in schools.

“It’s a one-stop shop,” Nishimori said. “It’s more convenient, and parents are used to going to schools; they’re a trusted environment.

“A lot of children get many of their basic needs met at school, like the hot lunch program. There are a lot of children who wouldn’t eat without that program,” she said.

According to Nishimori, all of the school districts in the Santa Maria Valley have “made a commitment” to providing some form of mental health service to their students, and many of the school districts have been doing so for decades. Cutbacks to education, however, have made providing those services much more difficult—and at a time when they’re arguably needed most.

“There’s a definite need, and it’s increasing,” Nishimori said. “There’s a misconception that children don’t have mental health issues because they’re too young. But it’s a much more complicated world now—much more so than when I was a kid.”

Family stresses impact children, she said, whether they’re economic or linked to domestic violence, substance abuse, incarceration, or isolation.

She said being aware of the risk factors for mental illness and strengthening protective environmental factors—having a caring and supportive adult at school, having high but realistic expectations, and giving children chances to contribute—increase children’s resiliency.

And the earlier children get help, the more likely they are to live happy, healthy lives.

“Problem areas, such as fear, not being able to ask for help or problem solve, conflict and anger management, we get referrals for those every day: ‘Suzie doesn’t have any peers, she’s isolated,’ or ‘Donny goes and hits people,’” she said. “I think we’re very lucky in this valley to have [school] districts that understand the importance of mental health.”

Unfortunately, dwindling funds mean Nishimori and her peers can’t help everyone.

“Our waiting list can be up to four months long. We try to refer as much as we can, but there aren’t many nonprofits in the area offering services. And it’s an expensive service,” she said. “We want schools to be a safe place for children. It’s a big job, so I’m not sure how much of an impact [Obama’s] proposal would have, but it would certainly help. National recognition alone is huge.”

Currently, MediCal regulations allow the center and many organizations like it to treat only children.

“We can’t work with the parents. It doesn’t make a lot of sense because we look at the family as an entire unit,” Nishimori said. “If that would change, that would be amazing.”

Contact Managing Editor Amy Asman at aasman@santamariasun.com.