Lawmakers want ‘mental health first aid’ training for teachers

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Capital News Service

LANSING — “Mental health first aid” in the classroom is on some lawmakers’ minds with the recent introduction of a bill targeted at helping teachers help their students.

The proposal would require the Department of Education, along with the Department of Health and Human Services, to create a professional development course about identifying warning signs of mental illness in students.

The lead sponsor, Rep. Matt Koleszar, D-Plymouth Township, said the course would help better prepare teachers to address mental health problems. 

“I was a teacher before I was a state rep(resentative), and I taught public school for 12½ years,” Koleszar said. “My experience there made me feel like we need to focus more on mental health in schools.”

Cosponsors include Reps. Kara Hope, D-Holt; Julie Brixie, D-Meridian Township; Hank Vaupel, R-Fowlerville; Rachel Hood, D-Grand Rapids; and Sarah Anthony, D-Lansing.

According to Koleszar, the training course would be optional.

It would also link teachers to professional resources to assist students.

“In my experience, besides telling the guidance counselor or school administrator, I didn’t know where to go,” Koleszar said. “The idea isn’t to train teachers as school psychologists, but as help for students.”

According to Cathy White, the chair of the School of Education at Lake Superior State University, such training is in high demand.

“I think that existing teachers need professional development when it comes to trauma and mental health because it hasn’t been in a lot of teacher prep plans before,” White said. “I do provide some training for teachers already in the field, and they request more like that.” 

However, White said she’s concerned about the possibility of additional stress leading to burned-out and over-burdened teachers.

“One of the problems we’re seeing with people working in trauma, like teachers and social workers, is burnout and even secondary trauma,” White said. “We have really great teachers that leave the profession because of that, and we don’t want that to happen.”

According to White, Lake Superior State includes self-care courses in its education curriculum, along with classes dealing with child development and early childhood trauma. 

“My hope is, if they did those trainings, they would also include self-care for teachers,” White said.

“I just hope they keep in mind that we do have specialists in health care,” she said. “My worry is that they’re going to push teachers to focus on doing so much that mental health professionals won’t be hired or included as much.”

According to Jennifer Smith, the director of government relations for the Michigan Association of School Boards, expanding the number of mental health professionals in schools is a priority.

“We’ve been talking to the Legislature about increasing access to funding for counsellors and mental health professionals instead of putting one more thing on our teachers,” Smith said.

“We need to be conscious of all the things we ask our teachers to do, and sometimes when legislation like this is proposed we forget how much we ask our teachers to do already,” she said. “I think the extra burdens do make it difficult for teachers to stay in the profession.”

The school boards association doesn’t have an official position on the bill, but Smith said she believes districts are capable of developing their own mental health procedure.

“We need to allow our local districts to figure out what professional development makes sense for them,” Smith said. “The more we dictate what professional development has to be, the less districts can tailor that development to fit the needs of their teachers.”

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