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Jackson education leaders update public on newly implemented school-based mental health program ‘Project AWARE’

By Kristin Fox

At the May regular meeting of the Jackson County Board of Education, Meagan Crews, LCSW, Director of Behavioral Health for Jackson County Public Schools, gave an update on Project AWARE. In September 2021, Jackson County was selected as one of six school systems in the state to serve as a pilot site for Project AWARE.

Jackson County Schools is the first school system located in the Mountain region to be selected for Project AWARE joining Nash County Schools and Sampson County Schools located in the Coastal Plain region in the second cohort of pilot sites for the program. The first cohort pilot sites include Beaufort County Schools located in the Coastal Plain region along with Cleveland County Schools and Rockingham County Schools which are both located in the Piedmont region.  

North Carolina’s Project AWARE (Advancing Wellness and Resiliency in Education) also locally known as NC Project ACTIVATE (Advancing Coordinated and Timely InterVentions, Awareness, Training, and Education) addresses the three tiers of mental health (promotion, prevention, and intervention) through a continuum of education, universal screening, and appropriate services and supports for all students in grades PK-12 in response to varying levels of needs identified within the classroom and at school. 

Project AWARE also provides training for school personnel and other adults who interact with school-aged youth to detect and respond to mental health challenges, and connects school-aged youth, who may present behavioral health challenges, and their families to needed mental health help. 

The Project AWARE program strives to increase mental health awareness in schools across states, territories, and tribal communities. The program has increased mental health literacy among the schools and communities, removed barriers to find care, and ensured cultural relevance for all school programs.

The federally funded program was created by the NC Department of Public Instruction and the NC Department of Health and Human Services to promote student well-being, healthy behaviors, and interventions to address mental health problems before they occur.

According to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention nationally one in five children has a diagnosable mental health disorder. That translates to 20 percent of our youth in the nation are meeting challenges that could meet criteria for a mental health disorder ranging from depression, anxiety, ADHD and encompasses all mental health challenges. In a classroom of 30 students, at least six need some level of support.

Twice a year in March and October, the Jackson County School System issues the BASC-3 BESS, a universal mental health screener, to identify the needs of their students. Staff and professionals use the information obtained through the biannual screenings to help to meet these needs. 

During the screening, teachers report on the well-being of younger aged students, fourth grade and below, based on their observations and interaction with the students. Older students fifth through twelve grades self-report their mental health challenges in the screening.

In the most recent screening conducted in March 2023 in Jackson County School System, 26.8 percent of Jackson County students scored in the elevated and extremely elevated risk, meaning that they are identified as needing some level of support.  Nearly 18 percent of Jackson County students identified as elevated risk and close to 9 percent identified as extremely elevated risk for needing mental health support.

“This does not mean that they have a diagnosable disorder, it means that they need some level of support to be well, to learn and access the things that the teachers and staff are trying to teach them,” said Crews.

Another alarming statistic among youth in the nation is that suicide is the second leading cause of death for children and adolescents after the age of 10 years. In 2021, according to statistics from the Youth Risk Survey 22 percent of high school students in North Carolina that were polled seriously considered attempting suicide, and 10 percent made an attempt. The survey is administered in North Carolina schools every odd year.

Locally, suicide statistics obtained in Jackson County show similar behavior among its students. During the 2022-2023 school year, Jackson County Public School staff conducted at least 130 suicide screeners since August meaning that at least 130 students were identified by a teacher, peer or self-identified enough to get help because they wanted to end their lives. Twenty-two Jackson County students were hospitalized because they could not remain at home safely.

Faced with these sobering statistics Jackson County has stepped up to the plate and is doing its part to help its students with mental health challenges.

In 2018, concerned students and community members made a formal request to the Jackson County Board of Education to improve access to mental health services. Jackson County students and community members rallied and advocated for three things: Single entry-points for all school buildings, School Resource Officers on every campus and increased mental health and counseling support. At that time, the district’s staff-to-student ratio for mental health providers trailed behind the national average. 

The Jackson County School Board as well as the Jackson County Board of Commissioners listened and provided and continue to allocate the necessary funding to improve students’ access to mental health help. With this commitment from school and county officials, much progress has been made to help students with mental health challenges. 

“Project AWARE is a very large grant with lots of goals and objectives,” said Crews. “The central goal is to connect youth and families with mental health services. Through local funds from our commissioners and the grant funding we have been able to build a team of six highly qualified mental health therapists to help meet this goal.” 

These six clinicians serve in all nine schools in Jackson County to try to meet the mental health needs of its students. Services provided include:

    • Suicide screeners and crisis interventions
    • School based therapy services
    • Case management and referrals
    • Partnering with student support teams to provide universal prevention services
    • Providing training to Jackson County Public School staff and community members

These efforts are in compliance with NC session law 2020-7, which requires districts to adopt a school-based mental health plan that includes a mental health training program and suicide risk referral protocol.

Studies conducted in 1998 found that when children are referred to mental health services 13 percent of children started the services. However, when children were referred to mental health services on-site at school, 96 percent of the children started the services. In addition, providing mental health services at schools eliminates the barriers of transportation as well as saves time and money.

Providing mental health services at schools for students have proven to have positive outcomes on students including improvement in decision-making capacity and relationship skills, better academic outcomes, fewer special education referrals and decreased need for restrictive placement. Schools providing these services have also had fewer disciplinary actions, increased student engagement and feeling of connectedness to schools.

A 2011 study found that schools that implemented a school-wide mental health promotion program saw an increase in academic performance that was equivalent to up to six additional months of school. At the same time, it has been realized that untreated mental health challenges in early childhood and adolescence increase the risk for poor academic performance. 

Jackson County is fortunate to have been selected for the five-year grant from Project AWARE. The grant coupled with funding from Jackson County has allowed Jackson County Public schools to expand mental health services for all Jackson County Students.

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