How an organization that received a $15 million gift from MacKenzie Scott is working to change mental health in schools

As the United States faces a growing youth mental health crisis spurred by the coronavirus pandemic, a nonprofit focused on mental health in schools is stepping up efforts with a $15 million donation dollars from Amazon’s ex-wife Mackenzie Scott. Jeff Bezos.

Scott, who has so far donated billions of dollars in his pledge to return the majority of his wealth to society, donated $15 million earlier this month to the JED Foundation, which works with high schools and colleges across the country.

The money, the largest donation in the history of the JED Foundation, will allow the foundation to expand its work to reach more than 12 million students, according to JED Foundation CEO John MacPhee.

“We are aiming for large-scale impact across the country and his donation is going to help us get there faster,” MacPhee told “Good Morning America.” “Our goal is to triple the number of students we cover.”

Scott’s donation, which is unlimited, meaning the foundation can use it however it sees fit, comes at a time when the needs are “greater than ever” amid the pandemic, according to MacPhee

“Pupils haven’t been to school and now they’re coming back and the schools are just overwhelmed,” he said. “You could also say that schools are less equipped to be able to actually provide [mental health] support than they were before COVID-19, so we’re just hearing a huge need. »

Washington, DC and Idaho have one school psychologist for every 500 students, according to a report released last week by The Hopeful Futures Campaign, a coalition of organizations focused on mental health supports in schools. In some states, including West Virginia, Missouri, Texas, Alaska and Georgia, there is only one school psychologist for more than 4,000 students, according to the report.

In the final months of 2021, the US Surgeon General warned of a growing mental health crisis among young people, and organizations representing child psychiatrists, pediatricians and children’s hospitals declared a national mental health emergency. young people.

“As a parent and as a doctor, I am deeply concerned that the obstacles facing this generation of young people are unprecedented and particularly difficult to overcome and that the impact this is having on their mental health is devastating. “said US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy. before the senators in December.

As rates of anxiety and depression among young people rise, schools, where young people spend most of their days, can provide a unique safety net for identifying troubled children and offering support, according to MacPhee.

The JED Foundation does more than ensure that schools have mental health professionals. The goal of the foundation’s efforts, according to MacPhee, is to make mental health awareness and support a part of the schools’ culture.

“Everyone at school, everyone in the community has a role to play in supporting young people’s mental health and wellbeing,” he said. “It’s a culture of caring where there really is no wrong door, so it’s everyone’s responsibility to notice and support someone who might be in trouble.”

In New Jersey, the JED Foundation partnered with a high school that needed to change its mental health culture after two former students committed suicide during their freshman year of college.

The high school, Northern Highlands Regional High School in Allendale, New Jersey, sought assistance from the JED Foundation at the request of a parent, according to Dr. Jessica Verdicchio, Wellness and Equity Supervisor at the school.

“We’re a pretty successful district and there’s a lot of pressure around college and the type of college you go to and a lot of anxiety around academics and academic pressure,” Verdicchio said. “Our school community was not naive to the fact that we have and have had challenges.”

Verdicchio said the school’s partnership with the JED Foundation came at the right time.

“We’ve seen quite a significant increase in the number of students seeking services, even from last year to this year,” she said. “It’s been pretty busy, just to make sure our students feel heard and supported, but also connecting them to other resources, sometimes outside of school, and having conversations with families and students. .”

When the school began working with the JED Foundation last year, it created an interdisciplinary group of students, parents, teachers, administrators and alumni, led focus groups and conducted surveys to identify areas of change, according to Verdicchio.

Over the past year, the school has launched a series of lectures for parents on topics such as addiction and mental health. He also trained the entire student body of 1,300 members to identify students struggling with mental health issues and what to do about it, according to Verdicchio.

The school now also conducts quarterly mental health checks with each student and follows up to ensure they are put in touch with a counselor if they are struggling.

Additionally, the students have formed a wellness club, giving them even more of a role and voice in mental health support at school, according to Verdicchio.

“Our students really love having their voices heard,” she said. “They have tons of ideas for how we can continue to support student mental health, and I love hearing what they think works and what doesn’t.”

Verdicchio said mental health awareness is now “part of the fabric of our school.”

“With the JED partnership, what it has allowed us to do is to have a very clear vision of how this is supposed to work and to ensure that not only are pockets of people trained, but that all of our staff are trained, and that we are providing parent training and instilling language around mental health and how to cope and how to seek help as part of the fabric of our school,” she said. said “It made our school as a whole feel supported.”

How to ensure schools support children’s mental health

One of the “silver linings” of the coronavirus pandemic, according to MacPhee, is that it has sparked a bigger conversation about mental health and children, especially in schools.

Part of the change comes from parents who should feel empowered to ensure their children’s school is a healthy environment, according to MacPhee.

Here are four tips from MacPhee on how parents can get involved in supporting schools.

1. Ask for the schools plan to support mental health. “Every school should have a written plan outlining how it supports student mental health and how it reduces suicide,” MacPhee said, noting that schools should have plans to improve mental health.

2. Know the mental health resources available at your child’s school, including mental health professionals on staff and available trainings for staff, students and parents, recommends MacPhee. “In addition to academic support and college guidance, parents should also ask about mental health supports,” he said.

3. Make sure the school administration supports mental health efforts. “The message to the school leadership is that it has to be a priority, and they control its success by making it a school priority,” MacPhee said.

4. Ask how parents can get involved. “Mental health should be front and center with the parent-teacher association and other parent groups that are in the community,” MacPhee said.

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