Decatur High student center aims to improve students’ mental healthJoe Bodine. Photo by Katherine Richter
By Catherine Harris, contributor
The Decatur Student Center hit the ground running last year, though its physical home at the high school has had a bit of catching up to do.
“Last year, in the fall, the school was still undergoing construction and there was literally no extra room,” says Dianne Thompson, the district’s new coordinator for student success. “But we began offering services and doing some programming based on what the students were telling us the needs were.”
The center is an innovative program that aims to help support students throughout the school system by promoting awareness of mental health issues, improving access to treatment, and bridging the gap many students find between their academic studies and readiness to face the adult world post graduation.
The approach was spearheaded by Decatur parent and educator Lori Heeman. Heeman’s son, Joe Bodine, a 2015 graduate of Decatur High School, died of a drug overdose months after his graduation, having struggled with depression and addiction for much of his high school years.
After Joe’s death, his family set up Joe’s Fund at the Decatur Education Foundation to support improved access to addiction treatment and mental health resources for Decatur families. The fund has been a major source of support for the new center and Heeman and other members of Joe’s family have worked closely with the school system to set it up.
“We want students and parents to have a place where they know they can get information and help,” says Heeman. “So, hopefully, they won’t have to piece it together all on their own the way that we did.”
There were very few treatment centers that had space for Joe because he was under 18, she says. They also had trouble finding clinicians who could manage his mental health issues while also addressing his problems with addiction.
A 2016 Georgia Student Health Survey indicated that Decatur students were reporting higher rates of substance abuse, self-harming behavior and engaging in other high-risk behaviors than their peers in DeKalb County and the rest of the state of Georgia.
Anecdotal reports from teachers and staff across the system supports these findings, says Heeman, including high rates of anxiety and suicidal thoughts among students.
At the center, now housed in three classrooms in the high school’s career wing, students can self-refer or be referred for counseling and, if the center doesn’t have the resources appropriate for their individual situation, they can get information about where they can go in the wider community to access help, says Thompson.
Reducing the stigma
For the student body as a whole, faculty are integrating mental health topics into their lesson plans in ways that are a natural fit, Thompson adds.
“Every one of our teachers has committed to doing one lesson related to their curriculum–not something extra–but including it in their lesson,” she says. “For example, talking about the issue of suicide when reading Romeo and Juliet. Even our culinary instructor is on board. He said, ‘Substance abuse and addiction is a huge problem in my industry.’ So he is planning on doing a segment on self care and finding healthy outlets.”
The center will also continue partnering with the Georgia Care and Counseling Center to bring in licensed social worker and therapist Kaylee Simon and her therapy dog, Riley, to do information sessions on managing stress and anxiety. She originally came in during midterm exams last year, meeting in the school cafeteria, notes Thompson, which got a huge response from students and staff.
The center also sponsored school and community showings of the documentary, “Angst,” featuring teens learning to live with clinical anxiety.
“We are really trying to work on destigmatizing the whole conversation around mental health,” says Thompson. “Everyone will have a mental health issue at some point. Maybe you are having issues related to grief after experiencing a death or loss. We have a lot of students say they are concerned about relationships–relationships with parents and relationships with peers. We have a lot of students reporting concerns with managing anxiety and stress. It covers a whole lot of things. We want to reduce the stigma and let them know it is OK to ask for help.”
A whole-district approach
Although the center is based at the high school, Thompson’s position encompasses a district-wide focus and a broad definition of “student success.”
“We are a little different in that we are trying to reach everyone – from kindergarten through grade 12, “ she says. “Because — as I have said to all of our [school] counselors — what we are seeing at the high school doesn’t just magically start right then. All of these issues have programmatic implications for all of our students.”
Last year, she worked with counselors at the elementary schools on building resilience in younger students. This year, she is focusing on expanding to the middle school with programming on substance abuse prevention and intervention.
“The district has partnered with the Georgia Council on Substance Abuse and they are going to be doing prevention lessons with our 8th graders in their health classes,” she says. “But they are also going to do some informal student surveys to see what the needs are and whether we need more school supports or individual supports in place.”
The goal is to improve awareness of potential issues — by both educators and families — so they can be addressed early before a student experiences a crisis, says Heeman.
Similarly, the center at the high school is also expanding its focus into supporting career and post-secondary education readiness. Responding to student requests, Thompson is planning seminars on beginning financial literacy and online privacy. They now have a full-time counselor available to work with students on finding internship, work-study, and scholarship opportunities.
Support from Joe’s Fund provides just a small part of what it has taken to get the center established, emphasizes Heeman.
“There is no way that Joe’s Fund could provide enough financial support to cover what they are doing,” she says. “We had the support of Dr. Dude from the beginning, and the school board made it a line item in the budget, so we have Dianne’s position and the center will have ongoing funding from the system.”
A grant from Georgia State University’s APEX program for school-based mental health programs supports the on-site individual counseling at the center. And partnerships with organizations like the DeKalb County Community Service Board and the Georgia Care and Counseling Center also provide essential services.
That said, it will take continued parent and community involvement to keep it going.
“This last graduating class were the last students who would have known Joe,” she notes. “And, really, it has to move beyond the people who were so kind to contribute to this for us and to remember him. We need more families to be aware and to see the need for this for it to continue.”
About Joe’s Fund …
Joe’s Fund at the Decatur Educational Foundation provided initial support for the development of the Decatur Student Center and continues to provide financial support for mental health and substance abuse education within the City Schools of Decatur, including teacher stipends to fund professional development in these areas. For more information, contact the Decatur Education Foundation.