The pandemic has led to a renewed focus on taking mental health seriously, but schools in Loudoun County have been making it a priority for years, and they introduced some of their programs on Wednesday to a former educator — the first lady of Virginia.
“The whole concept of the United Mental Health Team is just amazing,” Pamela Northam said. “We fought for additional counselors in our schools, and it almost brings me to tears, to see five counselors in a school and to be able to say, ‘Hey, not only is this working on the ground, but this was so important through this devastating last year, year-and-a-half,” Northam said.
“We’re really proud of our Team Mental Health First Aid,” Freedom High School director of school counseling Ken Christopher told Northam during a presentation in the school’s library.
What began as part of a pilot program in 2019 sponsored by the Lady Gaga, Born This Way foundation involved eight schools in the country, including Freedom High School.
The foundation launched the Mental Health First Aid program in 2020 to train some teachers, staff and students to be teen Mental Health First Aid trainers.
Coincidentally, training wrapped up just before schools discontinued in-person learning because of the pandemic.
“We sent all those kids home, but they were trained. They were trained in team mental health first aid. Then, last year, concurrently, we trained 525 more. So, in the spring of last year, 75% of our students were trained in team Mental Health First Aid,” Christopher said.
Other aspects of mental health wellness on campus include pairing kids with counselors who stick with them through all their high school years and even read their names at graduation.
There are peer mentors, where upperclassmen mentor and guide freshmen through their new experience. Teacher-to-student mentoring is used to try to reach kids who do not seem to feel connected.
“And it’s not a focus on academics, it’s a focus on relationships,” Christopher said.
Northam also was briefed on the Unified Sports Program.
“We started out by identifying a need for our students with disabilities to be involved in extracurricular activities,” CaSandra Alexander, the school’s student activities and engagement coordinator, said.
“We know the importance of our students being involved in clubs, activities and sports. We found the Champions Together program through the Special Olympics, which provides an opportunity for students with disabilities to compete alongside their peers without disabilities in Interscholastic Sports,” Alexander said.
“Unified sports — it’s a great sport for me,” Luigi told Northam enthusiastically. Luigi has been a student athlete in the program for the past three or four years.
“I played soccer, basketball and lots of things, and I did best of all. So come cheer for us: Unified Sports. I hope to see you there on Oct. 8,” he said. “And remember: Where there is unity there is freedom!” Luigi exclaimed with a jump, fist-pumping the air.