Davenport Community School District safety specialist Ellen Reilly’s job includes one duty that she has had to perform rarely: When a student exhibits questionable behavior, she checks to see whether that youth has inappropriate access to weapons, either at home, at the home of a relative or friend.
That type of investigation has been necessary about seven times over the past 10 years, said Reilly, who has received more such requests of late.
“It’s been at the front of my mind when consulting with district staff in difficult situations,” she said.
Reilly made two such inquiries recently, and although she did not find weapons available to the students, she did determine that two teenagers should be referred for mental health services.
Just how students who need mental health care are found — and how they get that therapy — is an open question. In Iowa, it’s being discussed as the state works to reorganize its entire mental health care system.
There has been a new urgency around the topic since Dec. 14, when a 20-year-old man killed his mother in their home and then shot to death 20 first-grade students and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., before committing suicide. Although little is known about Adam Lanza’s background, and Connecticut authorities have not yet decided whether to release details of his mental state, mental health care has joined gun control as the major issue stemming from the massacre.
In Scott County, officials are investigating a wide-ranging system of screening tools and other methods to find youth with mental health issues and to assess any young people who need follow-up care. In an effort to put mental health on an equal footing with physical health, proponents say the existing systems need to be expanded and coordinated.
Programs being considered are peer mentoring and Teen Screen, a nationally respected tool that was used for seven years at Davenport West High School. Teen Screen remains available online, but management of it is moving out of Columbia University in New York City, where it was founded and based.
The Davenport district has invited violence prevention specialist Alan Heisterkamp to speak on how a mentoring program could be developed in the city’s high schools.
He will visit in March to discuss Mentors in Violence Prevention, or MVP, a national program that teaches individuals, as mentors, how to identify what is normal and acceptable behavior and how best to respond and react when confronted with violent or abusive behavior. The MVP training model has been implemented in high schools, on college and university campuses, in the military, among professional sports teams and in workplaces.
In 2011, Davenport Central High School students adopted an initiative called Stand for the Silent, an anti-bullying program. Anthony Howland, 16, of Davenport, help organize the effort. He said individuals involved in mass shootings and school violence often have problems that can be traced to having been victims of bullying.
Howland said the Central program stresses a positive approach to teens who are identified as bullies, offering them alternatives to the behavior along with motivation and positive reinforcement. The program is being expanded to Davenport North and West high schools, and St. Ambrose University officials have embraced the effort as well.
“A lot of good things are coming out of this,” Howland said.
Screening programs, navigators
No Quad-City area high schools are doing mental health screening on a widespread basis with a program such as Teen Screen, but that could change.
Dawn Knutson, the family system coordinator for Scott County Kids (Children’s Mental Health System of Care), is pulling together experts, academics and family representatives to address several issues spotted in the past two years, including the early identification of children with mental health concerns and the use of a universal health screening tool in school or at a physician’s office.
There are other inroads being made, too. A new job recently created at a Bettendorf health clinic is described as a “mental health navigator.” This person visits families in their homes to help them find assistance and resources in the existing mental health care system. That program currently involves only youth who already have been diagnosed with a mental illness and have Medicaid coverage.
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Finally, there is a wide outreach system to train members of the public about mental health “first-aid.” Many individuals around Scott County — law enforcement officers, staff at schools and mental health agencies, customer service workers in businesses, parents and grandparents — have taken the training, and those classes continue to be offered.
Knutson, a registered nurse, teaches the class. Topics discussed are psychotic events, depression, suicide, anxiety and panic attacks, as well as non-suicidal self-injury, substance abuse, traumatic events and eating disorders.
The first-aid training is aimed at helping to defuse situations before they develop into a crisis, she said.
The whole idea of mental health concerns is an obvious and conspicuous issue, said Jim Spelhaug, the superintendent of the Pleasant Valley School District.
Pleasant Valley does not do universal mental health screening, but it has counselors in buildings throughout the district, several of whom are provided by the Vera French Mental Health Center in Davenport. Vera French provides elementary school therapists to 18 buildings in Scott County, including the Bettendorf, Davenport, North Scott and Pleasant Valley districts.
That’s also the case in the Rock Island-Milan School District, which partners with the Robert Young Center for Community Mental Health. Counselors, psychologists, social workers and therapists work in all class levels. There also is a monthly program that allows a student, with his or her family, to receive therapeutic counseling through a computer connection with the Robert Young center.
“We continue to look for ways to get more services to our families,” said Kay Ingham, the district’s assistant superintendent for student services. “It’s a vigorous program,” she added, noting that when an incident occurs, it gets a quick response.
“We need to work together as a community on this topic,” Spelhaug said, noting that the schools are partners in the effort to provide support to troubled youth. “We can do better in this.”