National Alliance on Mental Illness-Lake Norman/Iredell President Crystal Hobbs delivers mental health presentation on Monday.

BY DEBBIE PAGE
debbiepage.iredellfreenews@gmail.com

Lake Norman High School Principal Bill Shapcott welcomed parents, students, and concerned community members to the school’s Mental Health and Suicide Prevention program on Monday evening, hoping to create awareness of mental health issues facing students and to reduce stigma in seeking treatment.

The LNHS Parent Teacher Student Association asked that the school host this event as part of Mental Health Awareness Month. Student Assistance Personnel Emily Murphey organized the event with the help of I-SS Support Services.

Rainbow Kidz, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, Partners, and Children’s Hope Alliance reps were also on hand with information to share with attendees.

Iredell-Statesville Schools Superintendent Jeff James, Chief of Strategic Planning and Student Services Boen Nutting, and I-SS School Board Chairman Todd Carver attended the event in support students’ mental health wellness.

“We are asked every day to assist those with behavioral health disorders, and we try our best to connect with students, educationally, emotionally, and socially,” said Shapcott. “We care. We strive to create positive connections so that we can help students in both the good and bad times.”

“Our goal is that each student connects with one adult — teacher, counselor, or coach — so that they have someone to talk to,” said Shapcott, who urged parents to encourage their students to make that staff connection.

I-SS offers school-based individual and group therapy through Children’s Hope Alliance (CHA), school counselors, and Student Assistance Personnel (SAP) to help students with their mental health needs. Rainbow Kidz grief group and SAVE Promise Clubs are also available.

Groups of students at some schools are also learning QPR (Question, Persuade, Refer) to help reduce peers’ suicidal behaviors and save lives through this free, two-hour suicide prevention training.

LNHS also has 25-minute weekly Wednesday social-emotional learning topic videos and discussion sessions to check in on students. All I-SS teachers have also been trained in suicide prevention.

If a student is in crisis, parents are consulted and CHA can immediately send a clinician to do an on-site evaluation.

The system also uses Gaggle to monitor students’ school laptops for “trigger words” that indicate a mental health situation and notifies school personnel to check in with those students.

The system’s “Say Something” (https://www.sandyhookpromise.org/say-something-tips/) reporting system also lets students anonymously refer a friend in crisis to get help or report a safety threat or bullying.

After the presentation, students in the audience were asked what families and schools can do to improve their children’s mental health. Daily communication, especially non-judgmental listening, with parents was suggested.

At school, students liked that some teachers did 20-minute Friday check-ins so that students can come talk to them one-on-one if needed. Others suggested approaching students, in a non-accusatory way, who are sleeping or falling behind to determine if family or mental health problems were at the root of the behaviors.

As an illustration, National Alliance on Mental Illness-Lake Norman/Iredell President Crystal Hobbs told the story of a high school school acquaintance who slept in class and was falling behind. One day she asked him why and learned that his father had died, causing him to take on a full-time job after school to help support his mother and four siblings.

The young man talked to her every day afterwards because she cared enough to connect and ask him about his situation.

One resource suggested for students and parents was seizetheawkward.org, which features tools for teens to talk to friends about mental illness along with videos from youth role models about mental illness topics and issues.

One student has started a “Lake for Change” club to create a more positive, welcoming environment in the school and to encourage students to reach out to teachers with issues. The club also teaches and encourages members to reach out to a new person every day; if the person has a problem, the club member points to an adult who can help.

Faith-based organizations can help by advocating in the community to place a mental health professional in every school.

Faith groups are reaching out to help in some schools as tutors and mentors and with groups such as Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Men of Valor, Angel Wings, Truth Girls, and Speak Life and Live. Church youth groups can also champion mental health for their attendees.

Some students said that bullying was not always addressed at the school. Shapcott asked students to make sure to immediately report any incidents to a teacher, counselor, or administrators or come to him directly with any bullying concerns, all of which would be addressed.

Without a report from a student, administrators do not know the bullying is occurring.

Shapcott said they are contacted daily by parents who ask for resources for their kids, and parents are immediately referred to the help they need.

His goal is for students to be successful in a safe, socially welcoming environment. “We try to connect academically and socially and emotionally.”

“There’s hundreds of success stories out there where the teachers and coaches meet and connect with these kids in the classrooms, ballfields, and gyms and have success stories that no one knows about. Our teachers do it because they genuinely care.”

Shapcott urged any student who needs help to reach out to any of the caring adults in the school with any mental health or bullying issues.

“I’m very proud of our staff because of what they do every day try to build relationships with these kids, and they do a great job at it. I would love for every student to have at least one teacher that they can’t wait to see at school tomorrow. That’s what we’re after.”

MENTAL HEALTH BASICS

Hobbs, who lost her son Tristan to suicide four years ago, gave the keynote address, saying her passion is “to advocate, educate and stand up for those suffering in silence from mental illness.”

She noted that the mental health issues affecting 16 to 20 percent of the American population have nothing to do with a person’s level of intelligence, social ability, status, religion, race, or income. Mental illness can occur at any age and is often temporary or even reversible with treatment.

Mental health conditions disrupt thinking, feelings, moods, and relationships with others and also affect a person’s functioning in everyday work and school life The person may vacillate between “normal” and irrational behavior.

These diseases of the brain are similar to diabetes, thyroid, or heart disease in that all are illnesses that need treatment to either heal or control them.

Most importantly, mental illness is a treatable condition that is not the result of personal weakness, lack or character, or poor upbringing, Hobbs explained.

Though mental health problems are common, stigma keeps some from seeking treatment because of lack of information or professional help resources. When people suffering from mental illness reach out for help, many around them do not know how to respond, she added.

Eighteen percent of American adults have an anxiety disorder, with about 7 percent with major depression, 8 percent with substance use disorder, about 3 percent with bipolar disorder, 5 to 10 percent with eating disorders, and less than 1 percent with schizophrenia.

Unfortunately, only 41 percent of people with mental illnesses seek treatment in any given year.

Hobbs noted no one is exempt from the possibility of mental illness, citing one famous couple who suffered a variety of mental illnesses, with the husband exhibiting melancholy, suicidal ideations, and despondency despite excelling in his career.

His wife was a compulsive spender, suffered periods of depression, displayed public outbursts and violent behavior, hurled verbal abuse, and self-induced vomiting over poisoning fears.

That couple, she said, was Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln.

TYPES OF MENTAL ILLNESS

♦ Anxiety, the most common mental illness according to the CDC, is a generalized term for a variety of disorders, including specific phobias such as flying, dogs, or getting health care (nearly 9 percent of adults), social anxiety (nearly 7 percent), PTSD (3 percent), panic disorders (nearly 3 percent), and agoraphobia (about 1 percent).

Psychological symptoms of anxiety include unrealistic and excessive fear or worry, the mind racing or going blank, decreased concentration and memory, indecisiveness, irritability or anger, impatience, and confusion.

Physical symptoms include pounding heart, chest pain, rapid breathing, headache or stomach ache, gastrointestinal issues, and muscle aches and pains.

Behaviors of anxiety disorders include avoiding triggering situations, obsessions or compulsions, distress in social situations, and exhibiting fearful behaviors.

Hobbs said anxiety can cause frightening panic attacks with no seeming danger or cause. The symptoms can cause the person to feel a loss of control or to even feel like they are having a heart attack or dying.

♦ Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) involves disproportionate anxiety about work, social relationships, or financial matters.

♦ Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), illustrated by Sheldon Cooper on the “Big Bang Theory,” is an anxiety disorder that causes repeated and unwanted thoughts, images, sensations, behaviors, or actions in response to obsessive thoughts in an effort to temporarily relieve them.

♦ Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can occur in people who have experienced or witnessed war, a natural disaster, a serious accident, a terrorist or violent act, rape, or sexual assault. Since trauma depends on a person’s experience of a situation, the same experience can affect each person differently.

PTSD symptoms include flashbacks, nightmares, heightened startled responses, road rage or general irritability, and emotional numbness.

The most common sources of PTSD are violent crimes, including sexual assault, child abuse, and domestic violence. Nearly half of battered women (45 percent) and half of abused children suffer from PTSD after exposure to family violence.

PTSD cases also often occur among police (13 percent), firefighters (15 percent), military veterans (30 percent), and victims of rape (36 percent).

♦ Depression, the next most common mental illness, involves feelings of sadness, reduced interest in enjoyable activities, changes in appetite (up or down), sleep disturbances (too little or much), feeling agitated or slow, fatigue, feelings or worthlessness or guilt, difficulty making decisions, and possible suicidal thoughts.

Some people only suffer depression seasonally in the fall and winter, a condition called seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

♦ Bipolar disorder involves periods of intense, manic racing thoughts, sleeplessness, and impulsivity, followed by periods of mild to severe depression.

♦ Schizophrenia involves two or more of the following behaviors on a persistent basis: delusions, hallucinations, disorganized thinking, “word salad,” confusing or catatonic behavior, or lack of emotion or motivation.

SUICIDE AND MENTAL ILLNESS

Since mental illness can lead to suicide ideations, intensive efforts to invest in prevention, education, awareness, and research are ongoing to prevent untimely deaths of thousands of Americans each year, according to Hobbs.

Ninety percent of those who died by suicide had a diagnosable mental health condition at the time of death. Sadly, only 46 percent of those with mental illness received treatment in 2019.

Another issue is treatment availability. In 2021, 72 percent of American communities did not have enough mental health providers to serve residents.

In 2020, the CDC reports that 45,979 Americans died by suicide, making it the 12th leading cause of death overall. However, suicide is the third leading cause of death for 10 to 19 year olds, second for those ages 20 to 34, and fourth for those ages 35 to 44. More than one-third of the individuals who died by suicide were age 55 or older.

Since COVID-19 hit, Hobbs said a sharp rise in suicide has also occurred in white males over 80, often after losing a spouse.

Ten percent of adult Americans have thought about suicide, while 1.2 million have attempted it. Males are almost four times more likely to attempt suicide. Veterans were 1.5 times more likely to die by suicide than other adults 18 or over in 2019.

Availability of firearms also affects suicide attempts, with 54 percent of all gun deaths resulting from suicide and 53 percent of all suicides occurring using firearms.

Fifty-four percent of Americans have been affected by suicide in some way.

SUICIDE RISKS AND PROTECTIVE FACTORS

In addition to mental illness, Hobbs said that previous suicide attempts, serious physical illness or chronic pain, family history of mental illness and suicide, childhood trauma, shame or despair, aggression and impulsivity, a triggering event, access to lethal means, suicide exposure, inflexible thinking, and general stress are potential suicide risk factors.

Hobbs said that schools and communities need to focus on developing protective factors to prevent suicide, including social supports, feelings of connectedness, coping and problem-solving skills, shared cultural and religious beliefs, biological/physiological resilience (survival instinct), a strong therapeutic alliance, access to mental health care, and importantly, positive attitudes about seeking mental health care.

Recognizing a possible suicide ideation crisis is important to prevention. Signs include excessive crying, explosive behavior, verbalizing intent, withdrawing from friends and family, and showing signs of serious mental illness.

Those in crisis will threaten suicide, seek means to hurt themselves, talk or post about death, dying or suicide, and express feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness, entrapment in a situation, and lack of purpose. They may act recklessly or engage in risky activities, increase alcohol or drug use, or demonstrate feelings of rage or revenge.

ASKING THE IMPORTANT QUESTIONS

If someone suspects another is experiencing suicidal ideation, Hobbs said having the courage to ask the hard questions can prevent loss of a life. The concerned person must directly ask if the person is thinking about killing himself or herself, if he has made a plan or gotten a means to kill himself, or set a timeframe to carry out the suicide.

If the person answers yes to these questions, keep them talking (without expressing judgment) and contact 911, the suicide hotline (800-273-8255), or text “HOME” to 741741. Remain present physically and emotionally until help arrives or the immediate crisis passes, but make sure the person is connected to treatment as soon as possible.

In talking with the person, listen and validate his feelings, respect his perception of things at that moment, and help the individual feel heard, acknowledged, and accepted.

Validation words indicate understanding (“How frustrating,” Wow, that’s a lot to deal with,” It sounds like you are feeling_____,” etc.).

Reflective listening is another technique which seeks to hear and understand the speaker’s idea and then offer the idea back to the speaker to confirm to him that the listener understands, using phrases like “What I hear you saying” and “It seems as if you are saying.”

Telling a person with a mental illness to snap out of it is like telling a deaf person to listen harder.

RECOVERY FROM MENTAL ILLNESS

Hobbs noted that recovery from mental illness involves peer and family support, therapy or professional assistance, medication, exercise and self-care, and a renewed sense of hope and sense of purpose.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) defines recovery as the “process of change through which individuals improve their health and wellness, live a self-directed life, and strive to reach their full potential.”

The goal is for everyone to fully embrace the six components of health: physical (healthy body functioning), mental (how good one feels about oneself), emotional (how one feels emotionally and psychologically), social (healthy relationships), spiritual (living with a purpose), and environmental (interacting with nature).

ABOUT NAMI

NAMI offers several free classes, including family to family, peer to peer, Homefront (for military vets), and mental health basics as well as support groups and presentations geared for teens, families, community, and law enforcement.

For more information, visit https://naminc.org/directory/4771/nami-lake-normaniredell/.

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