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

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

"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 works at training staff members on their Youth Mental Health First Aid program.

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

"Teachers are assessing all the time," Perez said. "Whether it's academically, or assessing those emotional needs that the student has, they're assessing, they're listening non-judgementally."

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The staff learned how to identify kids just having a bad day, whether there might be something going on at home, or whether they're showing signs of bullying or depression.

"Whether I am walking around the campus, and I just happen to see a child outside the classroom who I might engage with and help cope," said Yates teacher Janet Gillespie.

Given the high and sometimes deadly stakes of students having mental health breakdowns, the district mandates the training for all 25,000 employees. They want bus drivers, janitors, teachers alike, all on the lookout.

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"It is a little bit eerie that we are preparing for this right now," said Gillespie.

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

"What kids need from us right now is more than the academic curriculum," said Gillespie. "They need us to be there for them and be a person they can trust and talk to and help them no matter what their needs are."

Last year, the district had 100 therapists dispatched to schools, and they will have 120 this upcoming school year.