Monticello School Board hears request for improved response to student mental health issue

Monticello School Board members heard a measured but emotional request Monday night from a parent advocating an improved response to a tragic trend.

Scott Adrian addressed the board during citizens’ comments early in the meeting. Adrian spoke about the loss of his son, Matthew, who took his own life at age 17 earlier this year.

“We’ve had three or four student deaths in our school district [recently],” Adrian said. “We can’t turn a blind eye toward mental health. Suicide is a horrific event for any parent to go through, much less any school to go through. We have had a few of these [incidents] and they are tearing up the community. I don’t want to blame the schools, but I would just like to see something done going forward.”

Specifically, Adrian suggested the Monticello School District look at participating in Text-4-Life, a statewide suicide prevention call center that helps troubled teens converse with a counselor via text messaging.

“Matthew was undiagnosed,” Adrian said. “We didn’t have a clue. Matt was a happy, go-lucky kid who just wanted to help everybody, but inside, he was really hurting. I spent 10 years teaching crisis intervention training to police officers, firefighters, and nurses, If I could not see it, I don’t see how you can expect an untrained person to see it.”

Adrian said his son was a huge texter. “Matt would be in the next room and he would text me, ‘When’s dinner?’ instead of just coming and talking to me.” Adrian said Text-4-Life has a 60 percent success rate.

“Kids nowadays text. That’s how they do it,” he said. Adrian told the school board and Superintendent Jim Johnson he’s had at least five teachers reach out to him, saying they want training to learn how to deal with mental health-related incidents.

“We need a team of teachers who can deal with crisis intervention,” Adrian said. “We can’t turn a blind eye to mental health.”

Johnson said he appreciated Adrian’s comments during Monday’s meeting.

“We need to take this issue on as a community,” Johnson said.” If it’s only the district trying to address this, we won’t be successful. We don’t have the resources or the background, we don’t have the training. But we are fortunate enough to live in a community with a lot of resources.”

Johnson said he spoke earlier Monday with CentraCare Health-Monticello Administrator Mary Ellen Wells, and Wells said she was very interested in coming to the table and putting together a community response to the issue.

“I want the community to understand that the school is not turning a blind eye to this, as is being portrayed on social media,” Johnson said. “That’s the perception out there. How we react as a school district is very different than how a community [at large] can react. We need the community’s help. Our kids are growing up in a world that offers a lot of challenges. Some kids have a lot of support at home and some kids have very little. What we try to do as a district is really stress relationships. If you build those, kids will know they have safe places to go. Text for Life is one thing we definitely can look at,” Johnson added.

Next Thursday, May 12, CentraCare Health – Monticello and Central Minnesota Mental Health Center have partnered to offer “Spotlight on Youth Mental Health” from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at the Monticello High School Auditorium located at 5225 School Blvd. in Monticello.

The event is free and all are welcome to attend. The informative evening is designed to help parents, grandparents, teachers, mentors, coaches, employers, youth leaders and health care workers gain information and skills needed to recognize warning signs and support young people who are struggling with depression, anxiety, stress or other mental health challenges.

For more information about the event, call (763) 271-2836.

“Mental health is a top priority for CentraCare Health – Monticello,” Wells told the Monticello Times. “As stewards of health in this community, we have an obligation to work on solutions and raise awareness. We acknowledge that addressing mental health is complex and we can’t do it alone. We look to deepen our partnerships with our schools, public health and other community organizations to improve mental health resources and access to care.”

In a follow-up interview after Monday night’s meeting, Johnson provided additional perspective on the district’s efforts to deal with the issues mentioned by Adrian before the school board.

“The entire community is grieving because this issue centers on students,” Johnson said. “We recognize that, and when it comes with many things that deal with kids, people look toward the school to try and address that. We have a lot of resources. Talking with Mary Ellen Wells and the hospital, they will jump in with both feet. Central Minnesota Mental Health is right across the street, and we’ll be contacting them.”

Johnson said District 882 has had a great working relationship with the local ministerium, an association of clergy from various religious groups who come together to accomplish a specific purpose.

“While we can’t take a religious stand on an issue, the culture of this community is still very church-based in many ways. We need to bring them to the table,” he said.

Some people in the community want an immediate reaction to the issue of improving student mental health, but Johnson said it takes time to build quality programs and responses.

“We are taking a step back and looking at what we are doing,” he said. “Is it still effective? We continue to stress the important of relationships staff has with students. Can we give staff more? Are there some things we can do with more staff?”

According to Johnson, before the start of the current school year, District 882 offered a new program to address the issue.
“We knew kids were stressed,” he said. “We know mental health issues and concerns are on the rise. We took a day at the beginning of school last year, and we only had the freshmen come in. We had them build mentorships with upperclassmen, really focusing on social part of school, and the importance of connections. We are in our first year of that program.”

According to Johnson, it’s going to take time for the Monticello district build capacity at the high school the mentoring effort because it’s only possible to do one grade level at a time.

“We need to bring middle school students into the mental health conversation,” he added. “They need to be there, too. This is a school and community-wide issue. A lot of people want answers fast, but we need to bring the whole community together.”

Johnson said May and June represent a hard and a stressful time of year for students and parents.

“Graduation is coming,” he said. “I talked to the seniors at the high school about a month ago, as we started to ramp up towards graduation. Many of them have been together for 13 years. We are going to have almost 300 kids walk across the fieldhouse stage in a month, and often, there is an underlying fear of what’s going to happen next. Some kids really struggle with that transition. We see kids 173 days a year. Students will be walking out of our doors, but they still need our support. We are willing to partner on the issue of mental health. We need to pull as many resources together as possible throughout the community to deal with this,” he said.

Contact Tim Hennagir at [email protected]