The Challenge: Keeping our Students Mentally Healthy

In 2017, Arlington Public Schools (APS) identified youth mental health as a challenge it needed to tackle. According to, “half of all mental health disorders show first signs before a person turns 14” (i.e. anxiety and eating disorders), and three quarters of mental health disorders begin before age 24 (i.e. substance abuse).

The most recent Youth Risk Behavior Surveys at Arlington High School and the Ottoson Middle School show that mental health issues such as stress, low self-esteem, self-harm, sexual abuse and suicide contemplation/attempts are on the rise in our youth community, as is the case in many communities across the country.

How AEF Helped: Staff Training and School Plans to Support our Youth

Arlington Public Schools strive to educate students holistically so that every child has the opportunity to achieve academic, emotional, social and vocational success. Attention to students’ mental health is one of the key elements to achieving this mission.

That is why AEF is committed to awarding the district $200,000 between 2017 and 2020 to support the district’s Safe & Supportive Schools Initiative (SASS). 

As a first step, in 2017 a $100,485 AEF grant brought the Youth Mental Health First Aid (YMHFA) program to the district, allowing for over 325 Arlington Public School staff to be trained and certified. Grant funds were also used to support each school as they implemented further SASS initiatives.

The Impact: Empowering Staff and a Common Approach for Supporting Students

As of August 2019, over 325 staff – representing every school and every role from social workers to administrators – have been trained on Youth Mental Health First Aid.  Schools have also implemented plans that directly support youth behavioral health and ensure that every student has the best environment in which to learn.

“When we create a common vision, language and understanding of how to promote the mental health and well-being of our youth, support services are more focused and effective.” Sara Burd, Arlington Public Schools Director of Social & Emotional Health and Guidance

Youth Mental Health First Aid Training
During the training, which provides a basic understanding of what adolescent mental health looks like, participants learned how to:

  • intervene early and guide a student toward treatment (grades 3-12) 
  • respond to student needs through role play
  • assess risk of suicide or harm
  • help an adolescent who is experiencing a mental health or addiction challenge or who is in crisis 
  • identify mental health signs and symptoms of anxiety, depression, substance abuse, disruptive behavior disorders (including AD/HD), and eating disorders

Future plans are being made to accommodate more groups, such as transportation and lunch staff.

School-specific Initiatives
Schools across the district have implemented their own plans to support SASS. For example: 

  • Dallin Elementary focused on restorative discipline and Mindfulness in the curriculum.
  • Ottoson Middle School studied Jessica Minahan’s The Behavior Code.  
  • Thompson Elementary engaged Vinsion, Inc. for training.  
  • Arlington High School used grant funding to support Wellness and Inclusion Days.
  • Dallin and Ottoson consulted with Carlos Hoyt.

With AEF’s support, Arlington’s teachers and staff have the tools they need to identify and support all students’ social, emotional health and well-being.