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Heritage High School student advocates for change to address mental health

Chattanooga Times Free Press - 2/22/2020

Feb. 22--Like many kids his age, Relic LaMountain deals with the stresses that come with being a student, becoming a young adult and adapting to a rapidly changing world.

Unlike most kids his age, the 16-year-old Heritage High School sophomore wants to use his voice to start a conversation on mental health in his school district and how it handles sensitive situations.

"This is something I've been around forever," LaMountain said. "I've dealt with mental illness myself, and I've just never had a way to deal with stress. I was always scared that I was going to make my parents look bad by telling people how I felt."

In the last two months, two students who attended Heritage High in Ringgold, Georgia, have died and their deaths have made an impact on LaMountain. He was close with one of the students, and after realizing he could have done more to potentially help his friend, he decided not to sit back any longer.

LaMountain plans to attend Monday's Catoosa County Schools board meeting and strongly advocate for a change to the district's policy when it comes to students who want to talk in confidence about sensitive topics such as self-harm.

Dr. Lamar Brown, the system's director of student services, said Catoosa County Schools follows state protocol when it comes to such instances. The first step is for the faculty to assemble a suicide crisis intervention team made up of administrators, counselors, student resource officers, social workers and nurses to determine the seriousness of the situation.

Protocol states the first priority is to place the student in a secure area with an appropriate person from the intervention team and to "notify parent/guardian as soon as is practicable."

LaMountain believes that policy actually deters and discourages students from speaking to school counselors and other staff members.

He said he understands the importance of involving parents in their children's lives, but he would like to see counselors and other faculty members be a better and more dependable outlet for students.

"Parents and adults need to be making sure that their children are doing OK mentally," he said. "Sharing emotions must be normalized to maintain a positive relationship and atmosphere for these children and teens."

LaMountain doesn't believe the current policy is appropriate to meet student needs.

"You're gonna be made to feel more like a problem than a person," he said. "I think we do that way too much in today's society."

DOING MORE FOR HIS COMMUNITY

The Catoosa County Schools system has taken students' mental health seriously for many years, district spokeswoman Marissa Brower said.

"Providing mental health services and support is not a new thing for us," she said. "We have been proactive in this position for at least a couple of years."

The school district partners with Georgia Hope to provide mental health counselors in the schools. Two years ago the district had five, this year that number increased to 12 and next year the district plans to have one in every school.

Those professionals are different from school counselors and add another element to the district's effort to help students with mental health, Brower said.

Brown emphasized there are still questions surrounding the deaths of the two students but added the mental health of students is a top priority for the district.

LaMountain said it's an ongoing problem that seems to be getting worse.

In a report released earlier this month, Voices for Georgia's Children found that between 2017 and 2018, Georgia saw a 45.6% jump in teens attempting suicide.

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT

LaMountain recently met with Brown, Heritage High Principal Ronnie Bradford and a school counselor to talk about a Facebook post LaMountain wrote and shared on his mother's page.

Brown said it was important for members of the district to hear from someone who was so passionate about making a change.

After meeting, Brown suggested LaMountain be part of a student-first effort and an after-school program, Brown said. LaMountain said that would be a good way for students to take ownership of the issue.

Contact Patrick Filbin at pfilbin@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6476. Follow him on Twitter @PatrickFilbin.

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