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Texting Tornado-Afflicted Students

The tornado that tore through Joplin, Mo. in May 2011 killed more than 150 people, demolished thousands of homes and businesses, and damaged or destroyed 10 public schools. Though students were affected by the tragedy, many remain afraid to ask for the mental health services they may need. So, the Joplin School District partnered with a local mental health center to offer students the SchoolMessenger Talk About It service, a free, 24-hour communication tool that allows them to confidentially reach out for help using their cellphone or computer.

The largest district in the state, Joplin partnered with the Ozark Center, a division of the Freeman Health System, to put the service into effect for more than 5,000 students in grades 4 through 12 in November. If any student in the district is faced with problems such as bullying, dating violence, family concerns, depression, suicidal thoughts, or continuing trauma from the tornado, they can reach a school staff member or an Ozark Center counselor at any time through an anonymous text or online messages to learn how to get help.

Research shows that adolescents are less likely to access mental health services for fear of being seen going to a counselor by their peers or even their parents, according to Vicky Mieseler, Ozark Center vice president of clinical services. The Talk About It service allows students to speak up virtually using means of communication they are comfortable with to learn about the resources available to them. Though it is anonymous, the school can trace messages that are threatening to the student or others to take immediate action.

“We still have a hurting community. Being displaced from your home or having a loved one who was injured or killed are not things that can get fixed within a year,” says Jason Cravens, Joplin schools’ director of instructional services. “This system will benefit kids who are still struggling with storm-related issues because it gives them an opportunity to communicate in their own realm, and express things they may not feel comfortable saying face-to-face.”

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