HOT SPRINGS -- The Cutter Morning Star School District is continuing its push for better mental health awareness through training and other resources that focus on the individual student.
District Superintendent Nancy Anderson is part of the Mental Health Cohort of AASA, The School Superintendents Association, formerly known as the American Association of School Administrators. The cohort recently held its fall meeting at the Oceanside Unified School District in Oceanside, Calif. The cohort's main objective is to explore the latest data, research and trends around the mental health needs of students and school communities across the country.
The warning signs of poor mental health, Anderson said, are not always apparent.
"A lot of times, it's not the angry kid that's screaming and yelling and getting kicked out of school," she said. "It's [the kids] that are internalizing a lot of things. Something has happened, but a lot of times it's not so significant that it was even dealt with at school. Maybe it's bullying to a small degree. Maybe it's bullying to a big degree. Maybe the administration thinks that they have handled it, but they haven't -- and the student is still dealing with it."
Anderson said there are many average and above average students, who may even be involved in sports and other extracurricular activities, who are "screaming out for help" on the inside. She said this was especially true coming back from the covid-19 pandemic.
"When the kids came back, we saw so much more of that. Because they were used to their phones and computers, and when we came back from covid, we saw a lot more aggression or a lot more distancing. It was one or the other. They would either distance themselves away from their friends, or when they would try to talk, there was a lot more aggression between students," she said.
At the beginning of the school year, the district hosted a "Wipe Out Worrying Day," in which various speakers spoke to students about mental health, and faculty and staff received mental health training. The district developed wellness plans while encouraging more group activities and face-to-face interaction in place of technology.
Anderson points to the book "Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age" by Sherry Turkle, in which Turkle investigates how lack of conversation undermines people's relationships, creativity, and productivity, and why reclaiming face-to-face conversation can help society regain lost ground.
"Probably the most impressive thing that I saw when I was [at Oceanside] was a fourth grade young man, and he sat there and he talked about the issues that he dealt with at school," she said. "Not only how [the counselor] helped him with those at school, but also how he was able to transfer that into his home with his brother who was constantly aggressive with him."
The student learned coping mechanisms to use, rather than going to his room and shutting the door, or getting out his handheld device.
"He was able to talk through that with his mom and his brother to work through that, so he took what he had learned in that class and he transferred it into real life," she said.
She said even more impressive was his ability to take those strategies back to school and tell a friend with similar problems how he was able to receive help.
The district hosted a kickoff event in September about the dangers of bullying and suicide prevention, in line with the national "See Something, Say Something" campaign. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security, in 2018, implemented the campaign to engage the public in protecting America through awareness and action. Various speakers spoke about what to do during bullying situations or when feeling suicidal.
"That's where we have to make the changes -- in our students and their knowledge, and their reaction, and their being comfortable to tell others," she said. "Or even provide that help for their classmates and their friends. Because we know that in junior high and high school, it's more about what your friends say and believe than your parents, or the administration, or your teachers."
Anderson said the district's focus on mental health has begun to show in its culture, and that students seem to act more like "kids."
"They're laughing, they're having fun, they're talking to each other," she said. "We don't see a bunch of cliques over here, we don't see a bunch of kids on their phones -- we see interaction and engagement. And that's really what we're striving for ... those relationships, not just between teacher and student, but student and students."
She noted the biggest challenge that schools nationwide have right now is developing empathy.
"It's an epidemic because of the shutdown with covid, which was horrible for students academically. It's going to take years, if we ever can recover from that, to be honest with you. But it's not just the academic -- it's the social and emotional piece too. And that is the piece that we've got to get back," she said.