Too often, students with mental health problems suffer alone. Their struggle with eating disorders, substance abuse, disruptive behavior, anxiety, or depression is in many cases cloaked in silence.
“Because of a stigma attached to mental illness, people are afraid to even discuss it much less ask for help,” says Shannon Fuller, president of the Keene Paraprofessionals Association (KPA) in New Hampshire. This was not something KPA members were willing to allow in their school district or community.
“Our students don’t choose to have mental health problems,” says Fuller, who has been a paraeducator for 18 years, the last four at Symonds Elementary School. “We had to do something.”
Last November, after only eight months since voting to unionize and begin contract negotiations with Keene School District, KPA members won an NEA grant to provide training for 20 members in mental health first aid.
“It’s our first big project as a union,” Fuller says. Union members settled their first contract March 14 with the support of not only the school board but also local voters. In New Hampshire, K-12 public education employee collective bargaining agreements must be approved by union members, board trustees, and citizens. Voters approved the KPA bargaining agreement 254 to 57.
“Paraprofessionals work one on one and in small groups with students,” says Fuller. “We are in a unique position to detect the warning signs and possibly intervene when students are experiencing mental health challenges.”
Fuller and 19 other KPA members recently graduated from the Youth Mental Health First Aid program coordinated by the Office of Student Wellness (OSW), New Hampshire Department of Education.
While participants do not provide therapy or diagnosis involving mental health issues, they learn to listen non-judgmentally, give reassurance and information, encourage professional help and self-help, and assess for the risk of suicide. The curriculum primarily focuses on support strategies that participants can use to help adolescents and transition youth, ages 12 to 18.
“By expanding the number of adults who are certified in mental health first aid, the district will be able to support students and in the long term improve academic outcomes,” says Kelly Untiet, OSW communications coordinator. “By broadening knowledge beyond school counselors and nurses, we are able to use a common language amongst all adults who come into contact with students.”
Untiet says there are tremendous short- and long-term benefits to students, teachers, and parents when schools focus on students’ mental and behavioral health.
“We have seen consistent reductions in office discipline referrals, increased time in the classroom, improved school culture and climate, stronger relationships between families and schools … the list could go on and on,” she says. “By being deliberate and strategic in their approach, schools and their communities produce better results for students, and when that happens we all benefit.”
Connecting with Keene
KPA, which represents approximately 85 paraprofessionals, recently sponsored a community event for the benefit of all Keene residents. After months of planning and coordination with the Keene State Initiative American Democracy Project, KPA members in March sponsored a speech by Judge John Broderick at Keene State College. The judge addressed his personal and family experience with mental illness. Members also invited a dozen mental health care providers and other vendors to set up information booths at the college’s student center.
“We had a variety of Keene community members in attendance,” says KPA Secretary Tammy Judd, a paraprofessional at Fuller Elementary School. “They wanted to find out about services in our area and, I think, feel like they are not alone.”
Almost 150 students, parents, educators, business and government workers turned out for the event. It was billed as the first of several “family nights” that KPA members have planned for the year.
“We sent out flyers across town and talked it up on TV and Facebook,” says Judd. “Based on some of the conversations I had, there were people from support groups who have a child or loved one who’s coping with addiction problems. They learned where to find help.”
Symonds school tutor Tammy Kuraner said having vendors at the event further helped to challenge the negative stigma around mental illness.
“They offered pamphlets, bookmarks, business cards, pens, emergency hot lines and much more valuable information,” she says. “Our hope is for everyone to become aware of the signs of someone suffering from a mental health illness, to reach out and support them, and be able to show them where to find help.”
Community representatives were “welcoming and kind, sharing their information in a way that felt comfortable and safe for anyone to access,” Kuraner added. “This was the first event that I’m aware of in our community where schools have partnered with community organizations to raise mental health awareness.”
People “Get Who We Are” Now
Before Keene paraprofessionals voted to join NEA-New Hampshire and settled their four-year contract, Judd says she sometimes felt like a “glorified babysitter.” Not anymore.
“We now have a sense of unity and recognition for the job we do,” she says. “We are finally being acknowledged for our contributions to the overall education team.”
Judd says administrators now seem to listen more intently to paras and to support their need for professional development.
“There was money available for us for this purpose before the contract was signed, but nothing seemed to happen with it,” she says. “A line of communication and respect has been established.”
In addition to increased opportunities for training, the para contract stipulates that their 11 holidays are now considered flextime and can be spread out over the school year beyond the traditional Christmas and spring break periods. While members will now pay more in health care co-payments and medication costs, they retained the same overall percentage cost of 17 percent for care over the next three years.
“Our first contact shows how much the public support us,” says Fuller. “People now seem to get who we are and what we do.”
Alyssa Zalaski has a daughter and son in the third and first grades, respectively. She says she is relieved that the paras now have a contract that offers increased benefits and job security.
“They truly care about students and the work they do,” she says. “I take great comfort knowing that people like this are interacting with my children and others on a daily basis.”