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New school district staff orientation programs and seminars were held at Reed Intermediate School throughout the week of August 15, and on Friday, August 19, Jeremy Richman, PhD, and David G. Jacob, a licensed clinical social worker, presented a Mental Health First Aid course on behalf of The Avielle Foundation.
The educators were gathered in the school’s library for the presentation, which was introduced by Assistant Superintendent of Schools Jean Evans Davila.
The Avielle Foundation’s mission is to prevent violence and build compassion through neuroscience research, community engagement, and education, according to its website, aviellefoundation.org.
Mr Jacob is the former Recovery Project director for the town, and he offers local counseling for adults, adolescents, couples, and families in Newtown.
“What you are going to be led through is something that is so important, because… it is proactive,” said Ms Davila. The training, Ms Davila said, will help the educators shape lives.
Dr Richman explained that the program, which would certify the teachers by the end of the day, was created to empower people to recognize youths that are approaching or are in a crisis “of what people traditionally call mental health.” The foundation offers the program four times a year for local educators.
“It’s not to train you as a therapist or as a psychiatrist,” said Dr Richman. “It’s to train the everyday person how to recognize the signs and symptoms of someone who is experiencing crisis, and how to intervene appropriately. We think this is of great value to teachers of youth now.”
The Mental Health First Aid course, Dr Richman explained, would discuss brain health, and would prepare the educators to offer “first aid” until appropriate help can be given or until the crisis is resolved.
“The brain is just another organ… The brain can be healthy, and it can be unhealthy. But unlike the other organs, the brain is housed inside of our skull here,” he said, pointing to a slide. “It’s really hard to study. You can’t take it out, put it back, and have the dude be in the same shape as when we started.”
The brain is complex and difficult to study, and the least explored of “all of our sciences,” according to Dr Richman.
“We know more about the bottom of our oceans and the surface of Mars than we do about what is between our ears here,” he added.
As a result, Dr Richman said the natural tendency is to dissociate actions and emotions with the brain and associate them with the heart, but the brain is where it all stems from.
Dr Richman said he was there on Friday to prevent violence.
Preventing Violence Through Education
“We know even less about violence than any other behaviors. We don’t study it. We don’t pay to study it. We pay to react to it, primarily with incarceration,” said Dr Richman, who added that over a third of the federal budget is spent in response to violence, primarily through incarceration. “How much do you think we spend trying to understand and prevent it? Virtually nothing. We’re trying to change that,” he said.
The presentation shared risk and protective factors that can effect brain health.
“We’re here to learn how to recognize somebody whose brain might not be regulated appropriately and what might be going wrong with it,” said Dr Richman.
The Avielle Foundation is committed to preventing violence and building compassion through neuroscience research and community education, Dr Richman told the assembled educators. Dr Richman began the foundation with his wife, Jennifer Hensel, after their daughter, Avielle Rose Richman, was murdered on “that dark Friday,” at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
“We owe it to her to really figure out how to prevent this from happening again,” said Dr Richman.
The Avielle Foundation is committed to using the term “brain health” instead of “mental health” to help take some of the fear out of diagnoses, according to the presentation.
“I want you guys to stop using the word mental … Use the word brain. That is something tangible, something we can work with,” said Dr Richman, near the end of the introduction to the course.
District staff were led through a number of exercises near the start of the presentation. For one, the educators were handed cards with either a mental health disorder definition or with the name of the disorder on them. The teachers were then asked to walk around and find the matching card.