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Along the I-4 corridor, intervention programs slowing teen suicide rate

Donna Linsay, an art teacher at Waterford Elementary school points to her board of traits she instills in students to have positive mental health goals, including respect, love, and equality through artistic activities.
Maddy Mae Dickinson
Donna Linsay, an art teacher at Waterford Elementary school points to her board of traits she instills in students to have positive mental health goals, including respect, love, and equality through artistic activities.

Schools and communities along the I-4 corridor are defying a national and statewide uptick in teen suicide thanks to the introduction of successful mental health intervention programs and the hiring of more mental health professionals.

In Orange County, the suicide rate among children and teens dropped 13% from 2020 to 2021, according to the Florida Department of Health Bureau of Vital Statistics. That compares with a 1% drop statewide for Florida during the same period. The suicide rate for the nation remained about the same.

Depression, a major cause of suicide, continues to be a national public health issue. About 180,000 Floridians ages 12-17 suffer from depression, according to the National Alliance of Mental Illness. And about 64% of Floridians aged 12-17 diagnosed with depression did not receive any care in the last year, according to National Alliance data.

In recent years, mental health problems have increased in both adults and children in Florida. Over 2.5 million people in Florida have a mental health condition, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Solutions to the problem in Central Florida

Many people in Florida do not have access to mental health professionals. Data collected from the National Alliance of Mental Illness said, over six million Floridians do not have access to mental health care in their community.

The problem remains stubborn and real for the thousands of kids who suffer.

But in Orange County, school and mental health practitioners have worked together to see the the worst results of depression – the number of suicides – come down.

At Orange County Public Schools, Mary Bridges, executive director of student services, has worked with other school officials to develop “The Four Teams of Mental Health in OCPS.” This team-based approach brings mental health professionals, social service workers, teachers and administrators, and school psychologists and counselors together to identify, intervene and support students in need.

In the past year, OCPS trained 39 mental health counselors and 37 mental health designees who work across all schools in the county to provide help to students, Bridges said. OCPS also developed the Mobile Crisis — a helpline students can call anytime day or night.

“Especially in the past year, the differences in the mental health programs now is one of the big reasons why there has been a decrease along the I-4, ” Bridges said. “We just want these kids to know they are supported and have someone to talk to.”

At Waterford Elementary School in east Orange County, positive mental health is stressed by the school’s “One Purpose. One Mission. One Dream” message to make all students feel like they belong, Principal Danielle Arbelaez-Willis said. That message trickles down to classroom instruction where emphasis on mental health is integrated into lessons.

Donna Lindsay, art teacher at Waterford Elementary, works to make the world a better place with a paintbrush and box of crayons. “We do a lot of artwork that is based on positive messages of respect, kindness, and equality to help reach our goals of strong mental health,” she said.

Waterford Elementary school incorporates artwork to teach children about creativity, love, joy and respect for themselves and others. Qualities that fuel positive mental health in the young generation in a progressive way.

If you or someone you know may be considering suicide or is in crisis, call or text9 8 8 to reach the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline.

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