Hillsborough teachers, staff trained in mental health awareness ahead of new school year

Hillsborough County teachers gathered on Wednesday for special training focused on student mental health at Yates Elementary in Brandon.

“Sometimes we have to take a little step back and get ourselves grounded, get our students grounded before we can move forward again,” said Lillian Perez, a district employee who trains staffers in their Youth Mental Health First Aid program.

Perez said identifying students in crisis is often fluid. Last year, the school district referred 17,000 students for mental health incidents.

“Teachers are judging all the time,” Perez said. “Whether it’s academically, or assessing those emotional needs that the student has, they assess, they listen non-judgmentally.”

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Staff learned how to identify children who were simply having a bad day, whether something might be going on at home, or if they are showing signs of bullying or depression.

“Whether I’m walking across campus, and I happen to see a child outside the classroom that I could interact with and help cope with,” said Yates teacher Janet Gillespie.

Given the high and sometimes lethal commitment of students with mental health problems, the district requires training for all 25,000 employees. They want bus drivers, janitors and teachers all to be on the lookout.

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“It’s a little creepy that we’re preparing for this now,” Gillespie said.

Gillespie said she was comfortable with the role of a mental health teacher/interventionist, and said there is no choice anyway.

“What kids need from us right now is more than the academic curriculum,” Gillespie says. “They need us to be there for them and to be a person they can trust and talk to and help them, whatever their needs are.”

Last year, the district sent 100 therapists to schools, and this will increase to 120 next school year.

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