Mental health experts help out SWFL schoolchildren, their families

Reporter: Lindsey Sablan Writer: Joey Pellegrino
Published: Updated:
Credit: WINK News

Over the last year, a group called “mental health navigators” has helped some of the children most in need in our schools, reaching them before they’re in crisis.

One of the navigators, Jeannine Sparkes, met the Fahey family three months ago. Now, she may as well be part of the family.

“I call her almost every day and she just lifts me up,” said Barbara Fahey.

“Barbara’s family came to me because Nevaeha [Barbara’s daughter] was acting out at home and at school,” Sparkes said.

Nevaeha’s teacher reached out to Kids’ Minds Matter, a nonprofit focused on children’s mental and behavioral health in Southwest Florida. One of their programs designates certain people to connect children and their families to resources like doctors’ appointments and therapy.

“We connected them with psychiatry, got her on medication,” Sparkes said.

Sparkes is one of five mental health navigators who work with students in Lee and Collier schools. Richard Keelan runs the program.

“A navigator’s actually going to help the family set that appointment up, go with the family to the appointment, help them understand and process what happened during the appointment,” Keelan said.

The schools flag the students and connect them to the navigators, if the parents agree to work with them. The navigators operate on what’s called a “wraparound approach” that includes coordinating intensive care for children and having flexible funds to use at their discretion, like gas money for families. The navigators must also have experience, so they all know firsthand the challenges of mental health.

“I have lost two siblings to mental illness,” Sparkes said. “And my own father was bipolar.”

“It’s somebody who gets it,” Keelan said. “If you don’t know what it’s like to have your child burn down your house, it’s a little different. Both my kids did that at some point.

Keelan believes in this program because it’s how he met his two adopted children 20 years ago. The numbers show you have to intervene early: The median age of onset for anxiety is 11, so half are younger than that, and 50% of all mental illness starts by age 14.

“I taught 11-year-olds, and I had three students that were hospitalized through the Baker Act in one semester,” Sparkes said.

After that semester, Sparkes retired from her 20 years at Lee Schools and applied to be a navigator.

“Maybe I could help kids before they get to the point where they have to be hospitalized,” Sparkes said.

All of that was before the pandemic, which has been devastating for children’s mental health. Sparkes does feel like they have been having an impact.

“We see improvement pretty much across the board with the families we’re working with,” Sparkes said.

The navigators want to see improvement in a child’s school attendance, coursework and behavior. So far, Nevaeha has seen a 15% increase in grades in one quarter and a 55% increase in school attendance. Sparkes says the ultimate reward is to see children like Nevaeha thriving.

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