Mental health programs target younger students

LANSING — New programs focusing on younger students are trying to address rising rates of depression and anxiety in Michigan’s schools by offering coping mechanisms against such problems.

The programs are educating younger students on common signs of depression and anxiety as part of the effort to better prepare them before high school or college, according to a February report by the Voice, a publication of the Michigan Education Association.

For example, a leading initiative from the University of Michigan named TRAILS (Transforming Research into Action to Improve the Lives of Students) trains mental health professionals to provide cognitive behavior therapy that help them navigate not only the stresses of school but also more serious problems like depression and anxiety.

High schools in Ionia, Wyoming, Cedar Springs and Grand Haven are among those using the initiative to train their mental health professionals.

But some elementary and middle schools in Grand Traverse, Kent, Van Buren, Oakland and Washtenaw counties also participate, according to the TRAILS website.

At Grand Traverse Academy, a K-12 school in Traverse City, every student takes a class named “Advisory” starting in 6th grade.

Stephanie Patrzik, the secondary school guidance counselor, said that the class teaches students “the soft skills to be successful in life,” and the curriculum is meant to “educate the whole child, not just the education, but all facets of life.”

The school also offers a small group class if students are struggling with their mental health. About 20 students a year take the class to learn ways to identify thoughts and feelings that come with anxiety, as well as strategies to reduce the physical feelings that come with it, according to Patrzik.

TRAILS program director Elizabeth Koschmann said it was originally targeted for students in grades 9-12 but is being adapted to better help elementary and middle school students.

The new lessons for younger students are approximately 30 minutes each and foster self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision making, according to Koschmann.

Elementary schools across Michigan are beginning to use similar programs.

For example, Tamara Reaume, a fourth-grade teacher at Meadow Ridge Elementary School in Rockford, uses the exercises with her students and sees their stress levels and anxiety decrease.

“We’re giving kids tools and life skills to help navigate stress and issues they’re facing with this fast-paced environment they’re now living in,” she said.

Funding is the main obstacle for schools looking to implement similar programs, according to Christina Limke, a pediatric psychologist at the Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital in Grand Rapids.

“Everybody wants a psychologist in their school, but nobody wants to pay them — everything comes down to funding,” Limke said.

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