New program amps up mental health efforts in DC’s schools

WASHINGTON — Deanne Johnson’s tiny office is a cheerful place. Toys are stacked on shelves, posters hang from the walls and books are on display throughout.

But often, the children that come to Johnson’s office are far from cheerful. Some are victims of abuse or neglect. Others are just hungry. All range in age from 3 to 9 years old.

“You never know what they’re going through at home. Sometimes they don’t have the best relationships with their parents,” said Johnson, who works as a counselor at Eagle Academy Public Charter School in Southeast D.C.’s Congress Heights neighborhood.

“As you can imagine, they’re not focusing. They’re not able to focus on their work … What they’re going through — the underlying issues — are directly affecting their academic success.”

In the U.S., 20 percent of children and youth experience a mental, emotional or behavioral disorder, and those living in poverty are more likely to experience mental health challenges than their peers, research shows.

For many of these kids, the struggles and stresses felt at home manifest in behavioral issues in the classroom. And while studies show mental health services provided in schools are effective, time-strapped teachers and resource-restricted schools aren’t always best equipped to identify and serve all students in need of help.

Now, a new initiative is hoping to change that.

In D.C.’s Ward 8 neighborhood, where Eagle Academy is located, more than 35 percent of residents live below the federal poverty line — that’s almost two times the rate for all of D.C. (17.9 percent) and more than double that of the U.S. (15.1 percent).

Principal Royston Lyttle said it’s not uncommon for his students to have parents who have been killed, incarcerated, or are otherwise absent.

“It’s [having] an effect on our kids, because remember, they’re ages 3 to 9 and they’re trying to deal with life changes. And when others think the behaviors are just because they’re trying to act out, they’re actually reaching out for help, and it’s up to any school to provide that support for its students and not turn their backs on them,” Lyttle said.

Recently, Eagle Academy was one of four schools in Wards 7 and 8 selected to participate in a three-year mental health capacity-building program from the Bainum Family Foundation, in partnership with the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health.

Olga Acosta Price, director of GWU’s Center for Health and Health Care in Schools, said the overarching goal of the program is to assess the mental health needs of each participating school, train leaders to identify kids in need of help, and provide technical assistance so staff know where to turn when students are in trouble.

“We’re trying to build the capacity for schools to really know their population, know the resources they have available, what they still might need, where to get or solicit that support and then how to put it all together so it feels seamless and really is addressing the greatest needs and thinking preventively,” Price said.

All of the schools selected to participate in Banium’s pilot program are elementary and middle schools — and that was on purpose. According to the World Health Organization, half of all mental illnesses begin by age 14 and three-quarters by mid-20s.

“So we’ve learned through preventive efforts that it’s necessary to start early,” said Nisha Sachdev, senior director of evaluation at the Bainum Family Foundation.

GWU’s Price said while the program is still in its early stages, she’s hopeful it will serve as a model for schools nationwide.

“We see schools as such an important, powerful place to support development, and that the social-emotional development of kids is so tied to their learning that if we are not simultaneously trying to support both, we are going to fail in both areas,” Price said.

Principal Lyttle said the measurement he’s most hopeful to see three years from now isn’t a statistic on paper.

“What I want to see is to have more students smiling,” Lyttle said.

“You’re coming to an area where the students are wonderful. They just need the extra support.”

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