Embedding mental health awareness into school culture – School News Network
Kenowa Hills – The green decorations at Zinser Elementary weren’t just a month-long St. Patrick’s Day celebration.
Staff and students pulled out all the stops in February and March to support the Paint Kenowa Green initiative, a district-wide effort to raise awareness and end the stigma surrounding mental illness.
Principal Ross Willick, nurse Courtney Ellens, and paraprofessionals Ashley Anderson and Tara Follett collaborated to educate students about mental health and challenged staff and students to promote their well-being and that of the community. The guidance came from Brooke Davis, director of diversity, equity and mental health services at Zinser, formerly the school’s social worker.
The process of “painting” the school green began with posters, decorations and ribbons and a school-wide door decorating contest. Anderson said it was interesting to see the students notice their changing surroundings and it raised questions.
“We provide teachers with the information and support they need to feel comfortable answering questions and passing on mental health resources to students,” she said. “Some teachers have even come to me to get more information for themselves and to share with their class.”
Follett produced a weekly YouTube series, “You Matter,” to share with classrooms and the community. Each video features a familiar Zinser face or community member sharing their mental health experiences and expertise.
Willick spoke about dealing with his own mental health as a child and as an adult, and why he thinks mental health awareness is so important.
In her video, Ellens explained how students can improve their mood through sleep, exercise, and nutrition.
Follett explained that the transition to March provided an opportunity to combine their efforts with March is Reading Month.
“We had our superintendent and an officer from the Walker Police Department record videos of (themselves) reading stories and then we play them for the students during class,” she said. .
Anderson said students have started connecting all the green around the school with the initiative. “A kindergarten student said to me, ‘I know there is green in the school because of mental health.'”
The team also put together a Google Slide presentation to provide tools to teach parents and community members how to talk about mental health with their students.
Ellens said community outreach is one of their main goals.
“We’ve printed coloring sheets with ribbons for students and staff to color in, as well as real green ribbons for students to hand out to the rest of the community,” Ellens said.
Since the initiative started, “I’ve seen a huge change,” Ellens said. “The kids are much more open to talking about their feelings with me and with each other.”
The team spoke of a second-grader struggling with mental health issues. During their class’ “good news” period, the student shared that he had started seeing a therapist.
Zinser is also taking steps to support teachers and create a work environment that supports physical and mental health.
“Something simple that I did this year was loosen up the dress codes for staff, to make it one less thing they have to worry about every day,” Willick said. “As a district, we try not to blow teachers’ necks in classrooms, give them their space and check in every once in a while to ask how they are doing and what they expect from us. ”
Zinser staff members also learned how to use mental health resources at home.
“The relatability is heartwarming, and I see it even with my own kids,” Follett said. “We go over our ups and downs of the day, and I’m learning to be more intentional with my parenting.”
“My two oldest kids are in middle school, and hearing them talk about their friends’ struggles, I see them being able to talk more about their own mental health and not feeling weird.”
Anderson said she hopes Zinser students and staff will continue to use the tools given to them through the initiative.
“Anxiety comes in different forms and the causes of stress and anxiety will always change, but I hope our students learn coping and stress management skills during their youth,” she said. “I didn’t learn stress management techniques until I was in a college class.”
Zinser plans to continue his efforts through a mental health newsletter for families and by encouraging families to contact the school for advice, to ask questions and to connect with mental health resources if their child is in requires.
“The mental health conversation doesn’t end when Paint Zinser Green ends,” Anderson said. “We want to make awareness and destigmatization part of our culture at school.”