'We're going to have more empathetic kids': Mental health is a required class at Belding High School

The district began implementing a multi-tier mental health program about 3 years ago, even employing a full-time therapist from Pine Rest
Belding HS
Posted at 4:47 PM, Dec 02, 2021
and last updated 2021-12-02 18:39:29-05

BELDING, Mich. — Every time the country experiences a mass school shooting, the discussion of mental health resources bubbles to the service, with everyone asking how this type of event can be prevented from happening again in the future.

In the wake of Tuesday's deadly shooting at Oxford High School, which left four people dead, schools across the state are reconsidering the resources they make available to students.

“We know that we have a mental health crisis, but it's not enough to just say that and say, 'Well, you know, it's not going to get better,'” explained Michael Ostrander, principal at Belding High School.

For Ostrander, educational success is built on a strong mental foundation.

“If their mental health needs or social-emotional needs aren't met, academically, they're not going to perform as well,” he told FOX 17 on Thursday.

But it's not just education that thrives when students are mentally well; Ostrander believes it also prevents potential violent outbursts.

"The number one way we keep our building safe is through relationships, knowing the things that are going on, knowing when a kid is acting a little bit differently," he said.

“We have to have adults who care about kids and building relationships with kids, because we need to be able to recognize the things that are going on in their lives.”

There are three main pieces of the program the district has so far implemented— the first of which was opening a listening room, and hiring a recently-retired music teacher to act as a student support coordinator.

The listening room is open to every student in the high school, no matter what it is they want to talk about.

“They can talk about anything, whether it's a staff member, or whether it's another student, or a group of students," explained George Rousseau, who runs the room. “The ultimate goal is, everything is triggered by something, and once you find where that trigger is coming from, and you can help them with that, then they help themselves.”

Second, the high school began a mental health class, required for all students graduating from the district.

"There aren't, to our knowledge, there's no other school in Michigan that has a mental health class," Ostrander said. “It's everything from substance abuse, to prevention of self-harm and suicide... those are the things we worry about. Stopping the stigma is one of the first lessons that they go through.”

Finally, the district hired a full-time therapist from Pine Rest to offer in-school services to students in the high school and middle school who aren't able to access them outside of school for whatever reason.

“It might take a while to get everybody there, but we're going to see a change over time, that we're going to have more empathetic kids," Ostrander said. "We're going to have kids who are getting more support and access to support that they need.”

Belding's mental health program is supplemented by two anonymous donors who gave $60,000 to be used over three years.

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