School district combats mental health issues with personal safety plans

School district combats mental health issues with personal safety plans
Parent who wished to remain anonymous (Source: WALB)
Parent who wished to remain anonymous (Source: WALB)
Michael Norman, TCS Social Worker (Source: WALB)
Michael Norman, TCS Social Worker (Source: WALB)
Patrick Atwater, TCS Superintendent (Source: WALB)
Patrick Atwater, TCS Superintendent (Source: WALB)
Michael Norman and a student exchange a hug (Source: WALB)
Michael Norman and a student exchange a hug (Source: WALB)

TIFT CO., GA (WALB) - Over the last three years, 144 children and teens have taken their own lives in Georgia.

And according to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, national statistics show that for every young person who dies by suicide, 25 others will attempt to take their own life.

Earlier this month, several Georgia organizations partnered together to produce a series of public safety announcements.

While this is a statewide initiative, officials in Tift County Schools have been working with social workers, counselors and parents on a student-by-student basis.

Personal safety plans

In 2000, the school system developed "personal safety plans" for students to sign an agreement to not who hurt themselves or someone else.

Now, the number of students signing to protect their well-being and not act upon their thoughts is rising.

"It is an extra level of insurance," explained a parent who wished to remain anonymous.

Personal safety plans are not new, but the number of Kindergarten through 12th-grade students who sign a written commitment to not self-harm is on the rise.

The parent who wished to remain anonymous has three children in the Tift County School System.

She said none of her children have personal safety plans, but understands the mental health issues students face daily.

"I think that the safety plans give parents more reassurance," explained the parent, "It lets the child know that no matter what they are going through, they can always come to the counselor or social worker or a teacher, actually even a trusted friend, you know, that someone is going to be looking out for them when they're going through whatever it is they are dealing with."

Resources for the students

Michael Norman is someone who is there for the students.

As a Tift County Schools social worker, he works directly with sixth through ninth grade students by creating personal safety plans for those students who have threatened to harm themselves or someone else.

"We want to validate that child's self-worth and dignity," said Michael Norman.

He works with the student, parents, counselor, and the school administrator to have a student who is struggling sign a written promise of well-being.

"The most important thing is that if a child is verbalizing these thoughts out loud or is showing these marks on their arms, what we do is notify the parent immediately because they are very important," explained Norman.

Norman said he along with the three other social workers keep their cell phones on 24-7 to make sure their accessible to anyone who needs them at any time.

"We want to take that stigma of shame away and to let them know that they are not alone," said Norman.

The first semester, fall of 2017, 125 students across all grade levels in Tift County Schools signed the personal safety plans.

Throughout the entire 2016-2017 school year 169 students signed plans.

"Staggering! The number is staggering," exclaimed Patrick Atwater, Tift County Schools Superintendent, "It's a little bit scary for our faculty, staff and our students because any time you deal with a student's suicide it not only has an impact on that student's family, but that student's friends and that student's teachers and the principles and the entire school climate is impacted by a student's suicide."

Atwater along with Norman agree students are impacted by a variety of problems including socioeconomic status, social status, and the idea of perfectionism just to name a few.

"It [a personal safety plan] addresses the problem of the individual student. I think the root of the many of our challenges are the breakdown of the family structure and the stresses of society," said Atwater.

Norman also believes many of the problems start at home.

"If we were perfect we wouldn't need erasers at the end of our pencils, would we," questioned Michael Norman.

How the plans work

The process begins with a student approaching a teacher who excuses that student from class. From there the student goes to a school counselor to let he or she explain concerns about him or herself or a fellow student.

"Once they go to the school counselor the counselor listens. Once the school counselor listens, the counselor will notify an administrator as well as notify a school social worker and then we figure out what's the best plan," explained Norman.

Since each personal safety plan is tailored to the student's needs, the family arranges payment with a mental health provider.

For those who cannot afford this, Norman said many providers have sliding scales for payment or some type of assistance for payment.

"What we want to do is try to make sure that we lengthen to appropriate resources outside of the school to help them cope with their feelings," explained Norman.

In 6th through 12th grade students alone, there have been more than 1,700 visits to school counselors. And for students in grades Kindergarten through 5th grade there have been 2,700 visits for personal, social or emotional issues, according to Atwater.

"Many of those [visits] lead up to having tendencies or suicidal thoughts, suicidal concerns. that our staff has been trained, that our teachers, faculty and staff members have been trained on what to recognize," explained Atwater.

Norman said the plan is to ensure that that child is receiving academic instruction, comes to school each and every day, there's no interruptions.

"Ideally, we would like it to last for the whole year, but realistically we just take it one day at a time," said Norman.

Now as more and more students sign plans weekly, the parent said she thinks it is helpful.

"The children need to know they have someone in their corner no matter what they are going through. And I think the safety plan just adds another level of trust," explained the parent who wished to remain anonymous.

If you are interested in learning if your school system has similar resources you can call your school district's administrators.

And if you believe you are having harmful thoughts, the Suicide Prevention Lifeline number is 1-800-273-8255.

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