OXON HILL — Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS), in collaboration with the Prince George’s County Health Department and Department of Social Services, held its third Mental Health Symposium to educate families on the mental health and behavior challenges that students may face on May 28.
The symposium, held at Oxon Hill High School, was the third Mental Health Symposium this year.
The first took place at Dr. Henry A. Wise, Jr. High School on May 16 and the second was at Northwestern High School on May 21.
According to Chief of Special Education and the Department of Student Services Gwendolyn Mason, PGCPS wanted to partner with the Department of Social Services and the Health Department for Mental Health Awareness Month to provide resources to families.
“This strong partnership will enable our parents community to learn about the resources in our schools and the resources in our community,” Mason said. “In addition, we want this to become an annual event that will include not only opportunities for parents to learn about the significance and the importance of mental health but also the students, elementary age through high school.”
The first hour of the event gave time for attendees to gather information from organizations such as Step Forward, Maryland Family Resource Inc. and Community Advocates for Families and Youth (CAFY).
All of the organizations at the symposium dealt with the mental health of students and families in some way, such as Sheppard Pratt, the oldest psychiatric facility in the country.
They have locations throughout the state, and they provide services in eight Prince George’s County public schools.
“People don’t realize that two of the things that have to do with student achievement are (socioeconomics), but the other is mental health,” said Larry Epp, a representative from Sheppard Pratt Health System. “If we can help with mental health, we really can help with their achievement. So it’s a very controllable thing we can do something about.”
CAFY is a nonprofit but works on behalf of Prince George’s County Police Department (PGPD) as their victim services unit. They provide everything from counseling and various types of therapy to court education, such as how to testify in court, to victims of crime throughout the county.
Katie Brown, who works as the community engagement and special projects coordinator at CAFY, operates the organization’s 24-hour helpline and explains what sits with her the most is being able to comfort people in need.
“When you are a victim you normally have never experienced something like that, you’re traumatized and you don’t know where to go. At CAFY, we are able to navigate that system with them and empower them to become survivors.”
Melissa Nabinett, who works for Advanced Behavioral Health (which provides therapy and support for children, adolescents and families) came to the symposium to get information and resources that her staff can use and give to their clients.
“We actually do have to advocate to help parents through this process,” she said. “This is an awesome thing that they don’t have much of.”
Keynote speaker, Dr. Billina Shaw, gave an overview of youth behavioral health explaining the mental health issues that young people may face such as anxiety, depression, ADHD and trauma.
Shaw, the medical director of Mental Health Services at the Prince George’s County Health Department and a board-certified child, adolescent and adult psychiatrist, said that one in five children from ages 13 to 18 would have serious mental health illness. Of those young people, 11 percent of them will have a severe mental illness such as depression or anxiety, and 10 percent will have a behavior or conduct disorder.
Half of all lifetime illness starts before the age of 14, Shaw said, but although such a significant portion of students face mental illnesses, there is usually a 10-year gap between identification of the ailment and treatment. About 37 percent of students age 14 or older with a condition will drop out of school, and 70 percent of the youth in juvenile centers have a mental illness.
These issues can cause many problems in a child’s school life from inattention, lack of concentration, and even defiance of authority and refusal to go to school. Delayed treatment can lead to even worse outcomes.
However, Shaw emphasized the importance of focusing on productivity instead of the illness itself, that is, focusing on what you are not doing because of the symptoms.
Following Shaw’s presentation, attendees had the opportunity to participate in a series of breakout sessions where they could learn about more specific aspects of mental health in children and adults.
Topics for the breakout sessions included youth suicide prevention, understanding traumatic stress in children and adolescents and challenging behaviors in children and adolescents. Shaw taught one of the breakout sessions and PGCPS School Psychologists Scott Showalter and Robert Marino taught two others.
The goal of the symposium, Mason said, was to ensure that parents and students learn about resources available to them and also learn about the importance of addressing mental health.
“We want them to know about the importance of addressing mental health, the significance of what the signs might mean for their children so that we approach mental health in a way that enables us to help our children and our families in particular,” Mason said.
Donna Edwards Heary is a retired teacher but still substitutes and tutors in the county, helping out in any way she can. She said the symposium is “so necessary.” Although there is a great counselor in one of the elementary schools she works in, it is not enough.
“If we can’t be proactive and know as teachers and adults what is available to help the counselors, we’re kind of lost.”