Newtown Teachers Are Heading Back To School With Better Mental Health Training

CREDIT: AP Photo/Jessica Hill

A memorial for the victims of the elementary school massacre at Sandy Hook 14 months ago

This year, as kids head back to class in the Newtown Public School District, their teachers will be better equipped to respond to their mental health needs. In the aftermath of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, which put mental health and gun control issues back in the national spotlight, about 600 teachers and staff members have undergone training in “Youth Mental Health First Aid.”

The training was sponsored by the Newtown-Sandy Hook Community Foundation, an organization that was formed to respond to the 2012 shooting and provide ongoing support to the affected families in the Connecticut community.

“As part of our public input process, we heard repeatedly from teachers and school personnel that they wanted to be better equipped to recognize and respond to mental health concerns among their students,” Jennifer Barahona, the executive director of the foundation, explained in a press release about the new initiative. “Teachers and other school staff have their eyes and ears on our children the majority of the day and we wanted to support and empower them.”

Youth Mental Health First Aid is a program designed to teach adults who regularly interact with children — like parents, teachers, health workers, and other caregivers — how to help teens cope with mental health or addiction issues. The concept of teaching people first aid skills for mental health issues originated in Australia, where several research studies have found that it can decrease mental health stigma, make people more comfortable talking about their feelings, and increase support for people who are considering ending their lives.

Hundreds of staff members at Newtown schools completed a three-day training session in the program earlier this month, right before the school year began. They’ll complete the final day of their training at a staff development day in November. According to Barahona, her organization isn’t aware of any other school district in the country that’s been able to train its entire staff at the same time.

“We couldn’t be more thrilled that in less than two months this went from being a dream to reality,” she said. “To me, this speaks volumes about how committed this community is to the health and well-being of students in the district.”

Nearly two years after a gunman killed 20 children and six staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School, and long after much of the national attention has moved on to other tragedies, the community continues to reel from the effects of the shooting. Earlier this month, the president of the Newtown teachers’ union pointed out that teachers in the area went back to work too soon after the incident without adequate support for their mental health needs, and noted that a forthcoming report will recommend how to better respond to a large-scale tragedy. Moms in the area say they now plan their kids’ play dates around therapist appointments. And school staff members formed the Sandy Hook Educators for Gun Sense this summer, continuing to lobby for stricter gun control measures across the country.