LARGO — The woman in a cozy teal knit sweater with matching Chuck Taylor sneakers faced the stranger next to her and asked a dark question.
"Have you ever thought about killing yourself?"
As she said it, Carmen Bender, a reading interventionist at Lealman Avenue Elementary, remembered the time years ago when a counselor asked the same question of her. It was after her teenage son died in a car crash.
Now, 15 years later, it came up in a role-playing exercise during a youth mental health first aid training session hosted by the Pinellas County school district. Bender and her colleagues practiced on each other by asking the question — which is considered a suicide intervention tool to be used when a student's behavior warrants it.
"To be honest, I had once (thought about suicide) because I thought I wanted to be with him," Bender, 57, shared with the group, referring to her son. "I didn't have a plan, but the pain was so bad that I had to think about that. I remember how taken back I was and so frightened because I was like, 'No, not me.' "
Bender was in a group of 11 school teachers, nurses and secretaries at a training session held at school district headquarters last week, made possible by a state and federal grant totaling almost $500,000. Since the start of 2015, 31 trainings have been held with more than 400 participants, ranging from district teachers and bus drivers to staffers for the Juvenile Welfare Board and the Department of Juvenile Justice.
The goal is to destigmatize mental health, increase awareness and access to community services for youth, and build systems within schools with evidence-based intervention and prevention practices.
Many teachers said they hoped to carry on what they learned from the training into the start of the new school year.
"It's just been so informative," said Jan Behmer, a 68-year-old language arts and English for Speakers of Other Languages teacher at Pinellas Park Middle. "I feel like I'm going back to school next week with new eyes."
Pinellas Park is one of 10 middle schools identified with higher numbers of low-income students with behavior and discipline concerns who are more likely to not have access to mental health services. Four district "navigators," who could be school counselors or psychologists, will create sustainable systems at the 10 schools to address and meet the mental health needs of all students and ensure that the schools are not dependent on one person or staffing model. District officials then plan to replicate their methods at other schools.
"We see across the nation the increase in the identification of mental health needs in children," said Donna Sicilian, the district's executive director of student services, who helped secure the grant. "I think it was just important for our community to be aware of what the signs and symptoms are and to get children help as soon as possible.
"It's going to save people's lives. I know it."
Participants took notes and highlighted in workbooks over the course of the two days of four-hour sessions. The two instructors, a school psychologist and a licensed mental health counselor, covered topics such as what — and what not — to say to students who are not acting like themselves, how to give information and advice to hurting students, separate mental health fiction from fact and — the grimmest part of the course — learn the signs of a person contemplating suicide and how to act.
Much of the information was relayed through role-playing scenarios with scene cards, although the examples often weren't between a student and a teacher. In one scenario, Behmer, the Pinellas Park Middle teacher, pretended she was parenting a gifted high school senior who was starting to act erratically and letting her grades slip with the imminent start of college. The other parent in the exercise was Steve Meier, a varying exceptionalities teacher at Meadowlawn Middle who has a 16-year-old daughter of his own.
"The connection would be that I would be more aware of what I would be paying attention to, what should I be looking for in my daughter or my sons," he said.
"To me, any way that I can improve how I work with my kids I gravitate toward."
Contact Colleen Wright at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8643. Follow @Colleen_Wright on Twitter.