Program teaches mental health coping to at-risk junior high schoolers

Joanne Riebschleger, Michigan State University (MSU) School of Social Work associate professor, is working to make mental illnesses part of the community conversation.

According to the World Health Organization, mental health illness is the No. 1 disability in the world. In the United States alone, it is estimated that one in every five adults experiences some type of mental disorder in any given year. Ironically, mental health challenges tend to be rarely talked about, despite their prevalence. Joanne Riebschleger, Michigan State University (MSU) School of Social Work associate professor, is working to change that, especially for children of parents with mental health illnesses. Studies show that these kids have a higher risk of developing a mental health disorder than children who do not have a parent or other close relative with a mental health challenge.

“This is a common illness, and we need to teach people that it is common,” she said. “We, as a society, do a much better job of educating our kids about sexually transmitted diseases than
we do about mental illness. Both are very important, but we definitely need to do a better job with mental health.”

To that end, Riebschleger has developed Youth Education and Support (YES), a 10-session mental health literacy program for seventh and eighth graders at Waverly Community Schools in Lansing. Participants have parents or other family members with mental illness, substance abuse or cooccurring disorders, such as mental illness and substance abuse. The hourlong sessions
are lively and fun, and feature videos, games, crafts and lots of discussion.

“We talk a lot about how everyone is feeling,” she said. “Many of these kids think it’s their fault — that somehow they triggered their parents’ behavior. We teach them that this is a health condition and not an outcome of anyone doing wrong. It’s nobody’s fault.”

The overarching purpose of the program, now in its fourth year, is to prevent or delay the onset of the participant children’s development of mental health disorders. Shorter term objectives are to increase youth knowledge of mental health disorders and recovery, as well as to improve coping skills. Participants are taught that mental health is part of healthcare. Riebschleger said stigmas related to mental health often prevent people from discussing the issue. The program aims to break down those barriers and teach participants how to build a crisis plan in the event that they ever need one.

A mobile in Riebschleger’s office on the MSU campus is an example of one of the group exercises. Cards, each hand-labeled and drawn by students, show various coping mechanisms and dangle from the mobile. Ideas range from talking to friends to listening to music, and from going outside to helping others, which was identified as “pushing grandma’s wheelchair” in one particular case. Reports show that the majority of people with mental illness — whether children or adults — do not get the help they need, she said. The program strives to better equip these children, who are at higher risk than those without parents or family members with mental issues, to get the assistance they may need down the road.

“Some of what we tell them is that, even if you get this illness, you’re not doomed for life,” she said. “Everyone has their own dragon to fight — we all have struggles. We want to help make it more manageable in the event that it does happen.”

The program, which has a 90 percent retention rate, continues to collect pilot data, with special emphasis on the development of measures to assess youth knowledge of mental illness and recovery. Emerging data does show, however, that children who have been through a session are doing significantly better three months afterward, she said. The ability of the participants to cope also appears to be in good shape, she added. YES is a collaborative community-based study developed with support from the Guidance Center — a mental health contract agency in the downriver Detroit area —the Gerstacker Foundation (Midland, Michigan) and two innovative prevention program evaluation enhancement grants from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Co-investigators on the YES project are Esther Onaga, professor emeritus from the MSU Department of Human Development and Family Studies, and Betty Tableman, specialist emeritus from MSU Outreach. Waverly Middle School social worker Kristin Hood cofacilitates the YES program and collects pre-, post- and follow-up evaluation data. Eventually Riebschleger would like to conduct a control group/comparison group study in mental health literacy. She is also working to secure grant funding to create a website geared at helping this same group of youth. Recently she joined a new international grass-roots group of researchers who are reviewing worldwide literature to determine what types of knowledge are needed by children with a parent with substance abuse issues, mental illness or both.

Eventually they want to propose and test a scale in the United States, Norway, the Netherlands and Germany, the home countries of the researchers in the group. In the meantime, Riebschleger has signed a book contract with Lyceum Publishers of Chicago to co-edit a rural child welfare casebook with Barbara Pierce from the Indiana University School of Social Work. This casebook will be based on real-life child welfare cases and is meant to better prepare future child-welfare workers for practice in rural areas across the United States, Canada and Australia.

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