Learn all about the Spark program!
Learn all about the Spark program!
A Brief Overview
The thousands of young people who send thank-you letters to Deb Binion didn’t always believe their lives were going to work out. One writer had attempted suicide and been hospitalized many times because of her bipolar disorder. Two years after finishing high school, she reported she was doing well and offered thanks for a course in mental health that helped her understand her illness, its impacts on her brain, and how to participate in her treatment. “It made a total difference in my life,” she said in her thank-you letter.
“Until she got the educational piece and understood her illness, nothing was helping,” Binion says. “No one had ever explained to her why she had this illness and what was occurring.”
The program, which Binion started after her son Jordan’s suicide in 2010, has trained about 500 school staff throughout Washington State to help young people understand mental illness and what to do to support themselves and others. Although the numbers are difficult to track, Binion estimates that about 100,000 Washington students receive education through the curriculum each year.
“My mission is to get this information to the kids,” says Binion, who runs the non-profit Jordan Binion Project from her home in Graham, WA. She says a short-term, limited pilot project with the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) showed promising results, with 60 teachers throughout Washington informally reporting that about 85 percent of students showed improvement in their “mental health literacy,” a key feature of the program.
Teachers are specially trained to provide the Mental Health Curriculum
The curriculum, available through TeenMentalHealth.org, was developed by a world-renowned adolescent psychiatrist and researcher, Stan Kutcher. He observed that classrooms often struggle to provide an emotionally safe learning environment for students with psychiatric conditions. Some attempts to provide education about mental health have created confusing and triggering circumstances for students impacted by illness and/or trauma, he found.
Kutcher, professor of psychiatry at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, Canada, responded with a model for training school staff in how to teach sensitive topics of mental illness:
Deb Binion says the program was designed for students in grades 9-10, but middle-school and older students are also learning from it. She says the program takes about 8-12 hours to teach and that teachers in regular health classes, psychology classes, family and consumer science classes and others have taught the lessons.
Binion suggest that staff receive in-person training to understand how to create a safe learning environment for students. For example, teachers learn to provide individualized help without disclosing a student’s disability or medical condition to the class.
The topics can be confusing or triggering to some learners. Some of the videos might be difficult to watch because they include personal stories of self-harm, hospitalization and people suffering from emotional stress. The program may need individualized modifications for students in special education programs because of intellectual or developmental disabilities.
For information about how to bring a training to your area, individuals can contact Deb Binion through the Jordan Binion Project website or directly through her email: email@example.com.
Washington State recognizes a need for more education and direct support
OSPI, which oversees all school districts in Washington, provides an overview of Kutcher’s work and its connection to the Jordan Binion Project as part of the Mental Health & High School Curriculum Guide. Content in the guide was a collaboration between Kutcher and the Canadian Mental Health Association. At Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, Kutcher serves as Sun Life Financial Chair in Adolescent Mental Health and Director of the World Health Organization Collaborating Center in Mental Health Training and Policy Development.
Washington State is aware that a lack of mental health services is impacting students. In 2018, OSPI released data that two children enrolled in Washington schools die by suicide weekly.
According to the 2018 Washington Healthy Youth Survey, at least one in three youth in all grades report feeling sad or hopeless for enough time to impact their activities. In ten years, those numbers increased by 10-20 percent across all grades. More than 900 schools administered the survey, representing all 39 Washington counties and 228 school districts.
About one in three 10th and 12th graders report feeling nervous, anxious or on edge, with an inability to stop worrying. From 2016 to 2018, the percentage experiencing these feelings increased for all grades. Rates of reported suicide have remained alarmingly high, with about 10 percent of students reporting that they have attempted suicide recently.
This means that in a typical high-school classroom of about 30 students, chances are high that two or three students have attempted suicide in the past year.
Female students and students who identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual report higher rates of considering, planning, and attempting suicide. For youth who need support related to LGBTQ issues, the Trevor Project provides targeted resources and a helpline: 866-488-7386.
High rates of suicide attempts also are reported among students who identify as American Indian or Alaskan Native (18 percent) and students who identify as Hispanic (13 percent). Help for all is available 24/7 from the Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK. Another crisis option is to text “HEAL” to 741741 to reach a trained Crisis Text Line counselor.
Despite the alarming data and evidence that adult support can impact outcomes, only half of students say they have access to direct adult support when they feel extremely sad or suicidal.
The 2018 Healthy Youth Survey introduced a modified Children’s Hope Scale, which measures students’ ability to initiate and sustain action towards goals. Across grades, only about half of students feel hopeful for their futures. Students who identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual and students of color were less likely to report adult support and were less likely to be highly hopeful for their futures.
State, local, community and school efforts are crucial for supporting youth mental health. With the release of the survey in Spring, 2019, the state issued a guide to information and resources to provide more detail about the survey and to direct families and school staff toward sources for support.
An OSPI survey in 2018 found that the number one concern statewide is that students don’t receive enough direct support in mental health, counseling and advising at school. The Washington School-Based Health Alliance (WASBHA) is working with some districts who have varied grants throughout the state to build on-campus health clinics to address a range of student health-care needs, including mental health. The Alliance sponsored an all-day summit May 3, 2019, at the Seattle Flight Museum that was attended by several hundred professionals invested in building collaborations between public health agencies and schools. Throughout the day, professionals discussed how students are much more likely to seek a counselor at school than in the community and that outcomes improve when providers and school staff collaborate and provide individualized help focused on relationship-building.
New state law expands parent involvement in mental-health treatment
Youth older than 13 have the right to consent or not consent to any medical treatment in Washington State. Parents and lawmakers throughout 2018-2019 engaged in conversations about how that creates barriers to care for may teens who don’t fully grasp their mental condition or how to recover.
In response, lawmakers wrote and passed the Adolescent Behavioral Health Care Access Act (HB 1874), signed into law by Gov. Jay Inslee May 13, 2019. The new law allows behavioral health professionals to provide parents or guardians with certain treatment information if they determine the release of that information is appropriate and not harmful to the adolescent. The bill also permits parents and guardians to request outpatient treatment for their adolescent, expanding the current parent-initiated treatment process so that adolescents can get treatment before they reach the point of hospitalization.
“Parents across the state are desperate to be allowed to help their children struggling with mental health issues or a substance use disorder,” says Rep. Noel Frame from the Seattle area. “At the same time, we need to protect the rights and privacy of these youth. This bill strikes a balance by ensuring adolescents can continue to access treatment on their own, while giving concerned parents an avenue to help their children and be involved with their treatment.”
Parents also have a new option for helping their children and youth by contacting Seattle Children’s Hospital, which in 2019 launched a new referral helpline. Families can call 833-303-5437, Monday-Friday, 8-5, to connect with a referral specialist. The service is for families statewide. In addition to helping to connect families with services, the hospital will be positioned to identify gaps in the system through its engagement with families.
One in five youth are at risk
The Teen Mental Health website cites an international statistic that 1 in 5 youth experience a mental illness before age 25. Many of those illnesses lead to life challenges that require help, the agency concludes, and this makes adolescence a critical time for mental health promotion, prevention, early identification, and intervention. The agency provides a School-Based Pathway Through Care that promotes linkages between schools and healthcare agencies, parent involvement and strong educational programs that reduce stigma through knowledge and timely treatment access.
One way that Washington State has responded to the crisis is through promotion of trainings in Youth Mental Health First Aid. Through Project AWARE (Advancing Wellness and Resilience in Education) and other initiatives, Washington has grown a network of about 100 trainers for Youth Mental Health First Aid and about 4,000 first aid providers. These trained individuals can listen actively in order to offer immediate caring and can also refer youth to providers. OSPI reports that Project AWARE has led to 3,964 referrals for youth to connect with community- or school-based mental health services.
Washington has a program for treatment response for youth experiencing psychosis. The New Journeys Program is designed for youth 15-25 who are early in their diagnoses, but there is some flexibility in who might be eligible to participate. Families can contact the program for additional information about how to apply.
Information about psychosis, early warning signs and places to seek help are available through the website of the Washington Health Care Authority (HCA). The website contains a link to information about the Wraparound with Intensive Services program (WISe), which provides community case management for children and youth experiencing a high-level of impact from a mental illness.
Special Education is one pathway toward more help
Students access some aspects of mental health support through the special education system. Emotional Disturbance is a federal category of disability under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). In Washington State, the category is referred to as Emotional Behavior Disability (EBD). The IEP might list any set of these words or the initials EBD or ED.
A student might qualify for an Individualized Education Program (IEP) under this category, regardless of academic ability. A comprehensive educational evaluation can determine whether a student’s mental condition causes a significant disruption to the student’s ability to access school and learning and whether the student needs specialized instruction. Generally, that specialized instruction is provided through a category of education known as Social Emotional Learning (SEL). SEL can be provided in multiple tiers that might include schoolwide education, small group training and individualized programming. OSPI provides recommendations from a 2016 Social Emotional Learning Benchmarks Workgroup.
A student with a mental health condition also might qualify for an IEP under the category of Other Health Impairment (OHI), which can capture needs related to anxiety, ADHD, Tourette’s Syndrome or another specific diagnosis. Students with a mental health condition that co-occurs with another disability might qualify under another category, and Social Emotional Learning might be an aspect of a more comprehensive program. PAVE’s articles about the IDEA and the IEP provide further information about IEP process, the 14 categories of qualifying disabilities and access to special education services. A student with a mental health condition who doesn’t qualify for an IEP might qualify for a Section 504 plan.
If a student, because of a disability, is not accessing school and learning, then the school district holds the responsibility for appropriately evaluating that student and determining the level of support needed to provide access to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). Questions about FAPE might arise if a student with a mental health condition is not accessing school because of “school refusal,” which sometimes leads to truancy, or because a student is being disciplined a lot. Students with identified disabilities have protections in the disciplinary process; PAVE provides an article about school discipline.
Help NOW can mean a lifetime of better opportunities
The Center for Parent Information and Resources (ParentCenterHub.org) has a variety of resources related to mental health awareness, including a link to a video that details results from a national study. The study showed that students who qualified for special education programming because of Emotional Disturbance experienced the highest drop-out rates when they went into higher education, work and vocational programs. Meaningful relationships with adults who cared about them in school provided a significant protective factor. Students were more likely to succeed in life-after-high-school plans if specific caring adults provided a soft hand-off into whatever came next after graduation.
Here are a few additional resources:
Here are some articles specifically about Bipolar Disorder in Youth:
PAVE, is so grateful to work with Bianca who takes time to volunteer in the main office two to three times a week for the past three years. Bianca talks about volunteering and stepping out of her comfort zone is a learning experience for her. She is gaining new skills, mainly in computer and organizational skills but also self-confidence. Bianca said that this will help prepare her for a job when she is ready.
The staff at PAVE love the heart Bianca brings when she volunteers. It is making a difference in the lives that of those we serve. Come join Bianca and other great volunteers and Get Involved!
Parents and students who go to meetings prepared and organized are more likely to come away feeling heard and with a good action plan. This article can help you and your student prepare a one-page handout to share with the school or another service provider. Most important is to highlight the student as the most important person at the meeting—even if he/she isn’t ready to attend in person!
If a young person is ready to lead all or part of a meeting, PAVE encourages this! Understanding the Individualized Education Program (IEP) and facilitating an IEP meeting is a great way to build lifelong skills and confidence. See PAVE’s article: Attention Teens: You Can Lead Your IEP Meeting.
For a student who isn’t ready or able to attend the IEP meeting, helping to prepare a document can be a great way to participate. Note that this form can be adapted for any service delivery meeting at school or in a childcare or medical setting.
Keep your handout short to highlight your most important points. This handout brings your child and your concerns to the attention of the group and sets a tone for the meeting that is child- and family-centered.
Note: You can send your handout to the school before the meeting, so team members have a chance to read it in advance. If there isn’t time to distribute it before the meeting, you can take a moment when you arrive at the meeting to hand out your one-pager and encourage everyone to take a few moments to read it.
The top of your handout should include your contact information and other basics about the meeting. Your handout will become part of the official meeting record, so get formal and include all of this:
Next you want to highlight what makes your child awesome. This is also a place where your child can voice his/her own opinions and “self-advocate” for accommodations or help. Here are sentence starters that might help you create bullet points or a paragraph about your child:
Include a Photograph!
A photograph of your child shows the Very Important Person (VIP) and can make everyone smile as the meeting starts.
The final section of your handout describes your concerns. You may need to start on scratch paper with a longer list and then edit to prioritize your key points. Remember that you want the team members to be able to read your handout quickly. You also want this list to help track your priorities at the meeting. If it gets too long, you won’t be able to use it as a handy reference.
Here is a sample short paragraph to get you started, and your introductory paragraph can be followed by key bullet points:
My son/daughter’s disability in the area of [briefly describe the condition] makes school difficult because… My biggest concern is that …
My primary topics for today’s meeting include:
If you or a support person takes notes at the meeting, it’s great to conclude by making a list of Action Items. Make a simple chart to list:
If your meeting is part of a formal special education process, such as an IEP meeting, the school provides parents with a letter called a Prior Written Notice (PWN) to reflect agreements and discussion at the meeting. Your handout and notes provide checks and balances with the school’s PWN and guarantees that your concerns and those of your student are part of that formal meeting record.
The website of the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) provides information about PWN requirements for schools in Washington. According to OSPI, “Prior Written Notice is a document outlining important school district decisions about your student’s special education program. It is not a meeting invitation. School districts must provide you with Prior Written Notice after a decision has been made regarding matters affecting your student’s IEP or eligibility for special education, but before any decision is implemented or changes to your student’s program take place.
“Prior Written Notice must be provided in your native language or other mode of communication that you understand.”
The Parent Input Form for a Meeting with the School is here for easy download. If a download is not possible, all the information is above. If you need any support with this form, please email PAVE