Hey, Are You Okay?: Broward County Schools Organizes Mental Health Screenings for Students

Clayton Gutzmore

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Mental Health has transitioned into the center of the conversation when it comes to individuals' well-being. With the 2020-2021 school year being mostly virtual, this was a challenging year for teachers, students, and parents. This school year possibly puts a huge strain on students' mental health. Broward County Public Schools (BCPS) decided to take action and implement a Mental Health Screening Pilot Program. This is an attempt to check in with the students so they are not suffering in silence, “Mental Health struggles do interfere with learning. We are removing these barriers so the students can get help for all the different aspects of their life. We don't want them suffering in silence anymore. ” said Cassandra Thompson, BCPS Mental Health Assistance Allocation Regional Team therapist.

The Mental Health Screening Pilot Program was initiated in December 2020. In the beginning, about 19 to 24 percent of students that were screened had a level of depression. Students are screened through a questionnaire. The pilot program uses the questionnaire to pinpoint students who may be struggling with hidden issues and provide them with the help they need.

BCPS is paying special attention to screening juniors and seniors, as they work towards completing their graduation requirements. Overall, the program helps BCPS identify which students need an intervention before trouble arises, “The research has shown that having these screenings are more helpful. By rolling out the screening we have identified multiple students who are struggling with emotional issues that either the administrative staff or the mental health staff at the school were unaware of,” said Thompson.

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Cassandra Thompson, BCPS Mental Health Assistance Allocation Regional Team therapistCourtesy of Broward County Public Schools

BCPS has screened 2200 students. With May being mental health awareness month and schools concluding on June 9, BCPS aims to screen 2000 more students before summer. According to Vialpando, Broward County schools decided to be strategic about mental health starting in 2011 when Superintendent Robert Runcie arrived in office. A team was assembled and supervisors in psychology, social work, and family counseling were summoned to tackle this obstacle. It wasn't until the 2018 school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School where the world started conversing about mental health and BCPS.

The questionnaire can be taken online or in person. Information was sent home to parents regarding the questionnaire. From there, parents had the choice to opt-out of their child taking the screener. The program is only in certain schools. BCPS decided to activate the pilot program in regions associated with chronic stress, where students had been impacted by recent suicides and other traumatic events, “We plan to identify the largest concentration of students who may need additional support as quickly as possible, so we initiated the program where we determined there is the highest need,” said Susan Vialpando, BCPS Family Counseling Program supervisor.

During Counseling, the mental health experts use several engaging and entertaining methods to get the students to open up. Vialpando shares that counselors serve as a listening aid to create a safe space for students to voice their concerns and opinions. Students in the program were not used to getting that level of empathy from adults before. For Icebreakers, counselors asked students what is their favorite sport and what is their favorite music. Some sessions even lead to a game of Uno. The counselors meet the students where they are. This marks the beginning of the mental health journey for them. After time and effort, they become better and you can see the results,” Their grades improve, their relationship at home improve and they can see that in our program,”

The Pilot Program has been approved for the 2021- 2022 school year. The mental health team is pleased with the rollout. According to Vialpando, the team plans to expand the screener to more students in different grade levels within the same communities to get an idea of how those students are doing. Thompson, Vialpando, and the rest of the team are excited at the opportunity to reach more students “I appreciate that the District has made it a priority. We recognize that there is a critical need, and we are doing something about it.” said Thompson.

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Clayton Gutzmore is a freelance journalist in South Florida. His work has been published in several print outlets including The Miami Times, The Miami Herald, The Atlanta Voice, and Variety Magazine. Gutzmore is a 2016 graduate of Florida International University. He is also a member of the National Association of Black Journalists, The Online News Association and Omega Psi Phi Fraternity Inc.

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