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West Suburban Chamber of Commerce honors middle school for mental health work

Highlands Middle School recognized at New Teachers and Administrators Welcome Breakfast

LA GRANGE – With mental health being front and center in the national conversation, one local middle school is being honored for its partnership with a nonprofit organization to bring awareness to the important issue and provide support for students who could be struggling.

The West Suburban Chamber of Commerce and Industry recognized Highlands Middle School in LaGrange Highlands School District 106 at its 53rd annual New Teachers and Administrators Welcome Breakfast on Aug. 14 at La Grange Country Club. More than 200 educators, as well as community and business leaders, attended the breakfast.

Each year at the event, the chamber highlights one of the area’s many districts to showcase new and innovative programs or resources that benefit students in the community.

The middle school has partnered with the National Alliance of Mental Illness Metro Suburban chapter for three years to help address mental health issues in young people. Suzi Wirtz, president and CEO of the chamber, said Highlands Middle School has a very strong program for social and emotional wellness.

“[Mental health] is an extremely timely issue, and the district recognizes the importance of social and emotional learning,” she said. “District 106 has made great strides and has cultivated a partnership with NAMI, and we felt [the district] was worthy of recognition.”

Highlands Middle School Principal Mike Papierski said the district believes in addressing the “whole child,” and the earlier the intervention, the more successful the treatment.

“Statistics show that mental illness is rising among middle schoolers, and school anxiety is a big issue,” he said. “I was happy to speak [at the breakfast] on behalf of our staff because they’re the ones who are in the trenches, doing this on a daily basis. They’re embracing the need to support the social and emotional piece of education.”

NAMI provides professional development education for the district’s staff members, as well as workshops for students and parents. Kimberly Knake, executive director of NAMI Metro Suburban, said staff members are in the school four days total throughout the year for student programs that review the signs and symptoms of mental illness and teaches them about the importance of early detection and treatment.

“We have young adults talk to the students about their stories of recovery and share what it was like for them when they started feeling their symptoms,” Knake said. “They talk about the realities [of mental illness], and the kids’ reactions are amazing. They start engaging and ask questions. The presenters help dispel myths and decrease the stigma. The kids thank us for coming and talking about [mental health].”

Papierski praised NAMI for the work it does in the school and said the district and the students benefit from the partnership.

“It helps us reach our students’ affective domain, which ultimately allows us to maximize students’ academic domain,” he said. “We appreciate everything NAMI does with our teachers, students and parents. Without them, we wouldn’t be as successful as we are.”

Knake also praised the district’s efforts to address the importance of increasing awareness of mental illness.

“[The district] takes students’ mental health seriously,” she said. “We’ve trained more than 100 teachers and school social workers in a program called ‘Mental Health First Aid,’ and as a result, that has changed a lot of the school’s policies. It has been very effective, and we’ve seen the positive impact of the programs.”

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