Philly charter school trains teachers, staff in youth mental health first aid

Michi Marshall, wife of NFL wide-receiver Brandon Marshall, talks about her husband's mental illness during a day of mental health first aid training for teachers at String Theory Charter School.

Michi Marshall, wife of NFL wide-receiver Brandon Marshall, talks about her husband's mental illness during a day of mental health first aid training for teachers at String Theory Charter School. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

A Pennsylvania task force on school safety recommends better access to mental health services — including age-appropriate materials for students and teachers.

Heeding that advice, Philadelphia’s String Theory Charter Schools hosted a day of mental health first aid training for its teachers and staff.

At an event Tuesday, hundreds took part in the instruction provided by the city’s Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services and a national mental health awareness organization called Project 375.

Malik Gray, a supervisor in Philadelphia’s Mental Health First Aid Unit, says it’s important to train adults to understand what causes kids to act out rather than criminalizing that behavior.

“We look at the behaviors that we see developing in adolescents and being able to differentiate between, ‘Hey, typical behavior’ versus ‘Hey, something’s not right here with this young person. What’s going on?’ ” Gray said.

“It’s all about understanding what are those signs and symptoms, being able to recognize it, and then knowing what are the next steps. How do I connect this young person and their family, for that matter, with the proper services?”

Teachers at String Theory Charter School get training to identify mental health problems in the classrooms and provide first aid.
Teachers at String Theory Charter School get training to identify mental health problems in the classroom and provide first aid. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The city provided volunteer instructors for the day-long event.

“People are doing it because they want to make an impact on those that they’re teaching,” Gray said of the volunteers.

The city has been providing free trainings for more than 16 years, Gray said, and the role of mental health first aid is to put behavior in context.

“Who knows, Little Johnny might have just lost his brother last night in a car accident or watched a friend get shot,” he said. “It speaks to trauma and we know trauma is one of the big things that our young people are affected by every day in some form or the other. And we can’t just push it to the side and say, ‘Oh they’ll get over it.’ When the reality is a lot of times they don’t get over it.”

After he was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, Seattle Seahawk Brandon Marshall and his wife, Michi, founded Project 375 to raise awareness about mental health in 2012.

More than 250 people filled the auditorium of the Philadelphia Performing Arts Charter School, after morning breakout sessions, to hear Michi Marshall speak, as part of learning how to better address students’ mental health needs.

Marshall told stories about difficult times with her husband before his diagnosis — and of the importance of educating more people to recognize signs of mental duress.

“I say all the time in our trainings that it doesn’t take a special person to save a life, it takes a trained person to save a life,” she said.

She also spoke of why they chose, in part, to create their organization and to try to de-stigmatize mental illness.

“My husband cannot be the only person going through this. I can see him struggling … He’s being judged. He’s been isolated. He’s been vilified,” she said. “He was a label. He wasn’t a person. He wasn’t a husband. He was just a label.”

Marshall said things didn’t shift until her husband called a press conference in 2011 when he was with the Miami Dolphins to reveal his diagnosis and put a human face on mental illness.

Aaron Gerwer, head of school at Philadelphia Performing Arts, a String Theory Charter School, says it’s important that all of the teachers and staff were getting trained and certified.

“The No. 1 preventative factor for us, for a student to not have a mental health crisis is having a trusted adult and that could be anyone in our building,” he said. “It could be a teacher, a principal, it could be someone who works on our culture staff.”

Theater teacher Judi Letizia said after the training that she feels better equipped.

“It is assured me that some of the things I was thinking already I was correct about, so it was nice,” she said.

She says the classes were “very informative” and “enlightening.”

After the eight-hour training, teachers and staff are now certified in mental health first aid.

Philadelphia’s Department of Behavioral Health officials says teachers already wear many hats, but they hope this training — which is free and available to anyone — will lighten teachers load rather than add to them.

“Let’s be real about this. We know that teachers have always played multiple roles,” said Gray. “I don’t see it as a burden. I see it as a way of lightening the burden, right?

“So instead of reaching the point where this child is not conforming to whatever needs to be happening in the classroom, the problem can be addressed from the very beginning before it worsens.”

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