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Educators, community groups use summit to collaborate on student mental health, substance use

 A yellow sign with the words "safe place" is planted in front of a school.
Lauren Chapman
IPB News
Educators and community groups are having conversations about ways they can help students with their mental health and use substance abuse prevention programs.

Educators across Indiana are planning how to address students’ mental health and substance abuse when school starts in the fall. A recent collaboration between educators and community groups spread awareness about the need for mental health and substance abuse programming and resources available to schools.

The Youth Emerging Stronger, or YES, summit, was a collaboration between the Indiana Department of Education, the Richard M. Fairbanks Foundation, the Indiana Division of Mental Health and Addiction, North Central Health Services, Inc., and the Healthcare Foundation of La Porte.

Claire Fiddian-Green, president and CEO of the Richard M. Fairbanks Foundation and one of the summit’s organizers, said statistics show more than 43 percent of high school seniors reported feeling sad or hopeless for more than two weeks in 2022. More than 16 percent reported making a plan to end their own lives.

“I think it's important for us all to realize that these twin issues of substance misuse and mental health continue to be serious concerns that are impacting young people across the state of Indiana and the rest of the country,” she said. “We need to be helping them where they spend a lot of their time, which is in schools. And that means we need to be helping educators to identify those programs that are going to be the most effective at helping their students.”

Fairbanks recently concluded a substance abuse prevention initiative in Indianapolis schools. Fiddian-Green said Fairbanks spearheaded the summit to share knowledge and data from that initiative with other schools and groups looking to utilize programs for substance abuse prevention and mental health services.

READ MORE: School staff have limited support as mental health concerns mount from pandemic stress

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Educators and community organizations can find more information and the list of programs used in Indianapolis schools online at the Indiana Department of Education’s Online Learning Lab.

Michigan City Area Schools Superintendent Dr. Barbara Eason-Watkins attended the YES Summit to present on her district’s collaboration with the Health Care Foundation of LaPorte. The Health Care Foundation provided funding to the district for a substance abuse prevention and overall wellness curriculum.

Eason-Watkins said children who experience drug trafficking in their homes can face mental health challenges and turn to drugs later in their lives, so addressing students’ mental health is an important piece of the puzzle.

She also said that while mental health has a profound effect on students’ academics, they are not the only ones affected.

“Especially coming out of COVID, we have seen an increase in many of the mental health challenges that have faced our students, our families, and in many cases, our teachers, our staff,” she said. “We know that the research has clearly indicated that mental health challenges can impact academics.”

Eason-Watkins said her district has focused on providing students with prevention awareness strategies and coping skills, educating them about the effects of drugs and alcohol, providing them with support, and ensuring faculty and staff use a common language when sharing information with students.

Eason-Watkins also said it is important to use evidence-based programs that have been proven to help students struggling with their mental health and substance abuse.

Dr. BeAnn Younker, director of student services at Tippecanoe School Corporation, said in her district, the goal is to use proven programs to create a framework for students and staff to provide extra support. She added that there are many resources available both in the community and statewide, and she said it is helpful to see how other schools incorporate mental health and substance abuse programs.

“It was really exciting to see all the different work that's happening in the state of Indiana for not only our youth, but our adults serving youth as well,” Younker said. “I really felt very connected. I felt like we were all in it together. And ultimately, the reward is seeing that students are healthy and happy and really thriving.”

Kirsten is our education reporter. Contact her at or follow her on Twitter at @kirsten_adair.

Kirsten the Indiana Public Broadcasting education reporter. Contact her at or follow her on Twitter at @kirsten_adair.