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MUSCATINE — Louisa-Muscatine teachers focused for two days last week on developing mental health awareness skills and building relationships.

The district worked with Please Pass the Love, a Des Moines-based school mental health nonprofit, on a training to get students "the help they need."

"We just know that in a school setting our first and foremost priority is education, which is brain well-being," said Superintendent Mike Van Sickle.

If students aren't mentally healthy, it's harder for them to learn, he said, and the school's ultimate goal is to provide students with opportunities to thrive. The district decided last year to do mental health initiatives, and staff went through training about the effects of negative versus positive environments on the brain. He said the district received a $1,000 prize through UnityPoint Health's Imagine the Amazing contest for a health initiative.

Out of 2600 schools in Iowa, Illinois, Nebraska, South Dakota and Wisconsin that participated in the contest, Louisa-Muscatine was a runner-up. Van Sickle said counselors researched mental health programs and decided to work with Please Pass the Love.

Executive director Jennifer Ulie-Wells said the nonprofit, established in 2014, was designed to address a prevalent need for mental health supports in schools.

"Suicide is the second leading cause of death for young people in Iowa alone," she said. "In 2018, the Iowa Youth survey indicated that 21% of all Iowa youth that took the survey have seriously contemplated killing themselves in the past year. We know that, statistically, at least 20-25% of all young people have a mental health issue, but yet fewer than 20% of them get treatment. We just know it's a really real thing."

The program collects data from the school district, she said, to provide a snapshot of what mental health looks like across the schools. The next step is to create an action plan, which includes a training session with school faculty so teachers and support staff are prepared to welcome students Aug. 23.

Nearly every K-12 teacher and paraeducator in the district attended the optional training. Toward the end of the first day, educators were already impressed.

"I'm very glad that we did this," said 8th-grade reading and language arts teacher Kelley Rosenboom. "The more we know and the more we can recognize things, the more conversations we can have with our students and hopefully get them help if that's what they need."

Ulie-Wells said the program isn't trying to make teachers into therapists but build on strengths they already have.

"It helps educators who have close relationships with students to recognize when something isn't right and can help students get the help they need."

Training focuses on relationship-building and providing a basic understanding of mental health and symptoms. It is also integrated into the curriculum to give students the opportunity to practice crucial skills including asking for help, effective communication and self- and emotional-regulation.

Secondary and intermediate students, Ulie-Wells said, often don't have an outlet to communicate their mental health needs.

"We find that young people, when they're able to communicate and get some education themselves, realize that they're not alone and some of the feelings they're feeling are more alike their peers than different," she said. "Then we see young people getting the help that they need."

Amy Underbakke works in student and at-risk services at the junior high and high schools. She said she has experience navigating mental health through her job and noticed a sense of relief in other educators through the program because they saw the importance and not just content.

"It put an awareness of relationship-building at the forefront, which I think is extremely valuable to getting off on the right foot with our students," she said.

The skills they learned will be a more effective start to the school year for students, she said, rather than simply reading the syllabus.

Junior and high school Principal Chris Parkhurst said students are faced with more challenges today. The training helped educators recognize mental health affects people at every age and made them more conscious of what students may be experiencing.

"It's out there," he said of mental illness. "It's not going anywhere, and we need to be better equipped to deal with it so we can help our kids deal with it."

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