Denison students will soon have access to a new mental health awareness and suicide prevention program.

The program is being provided to the Denison Independent School District through the Grant Halliburton Foundation by way of a grant provided by Texoma Health Foundation. Denison ISD will be the first school district in Grayson County to accept the grant to offer one of the programs.

Denison ISD Superintendent Henry Scott said the Grant Halliburton Foundation contacted the district a couple of months ago to discuss the opportunity. He explained the program is focused on mental wellness, bullying, suicide prevention and similar programs to “make life better for our students.”

THF CEO Michelle Lemming said the foundaiton is making the funding available for any school district in Grayson or Fannin counties. She also said THF first recognized mental health as a priority for the area about five years ago.

“There is a really big need in our area,” Lemming said. “We need to get to a point where it is okay to talk about mental health but also to get people the help they need.”

Lemming said THF’s greater goal is providing for overall health of the community, and that includes mental health.

“We needed to spend more time understanding mental health — that is what we have been doing ever since,” Lemming said.

Local implementation

The Denison ISD superintendent said he expects the program is going to be a big help to students with mental health issues.

“We think it is a really neat opportunity,” Scott said. “Especially today, when we are seeing more and more kids that have mental health or behavioral issues to the point this will be helpful.”

The Grant Halliburton Foundation offers a host of suicide awareness programs, ranging from student-led support groups to classroom visits in a personalized setting with mental health professionals. Scott said he wants Denison ISD to begin offering the classroom visits as early as next school year.

During the program, representatives from the Grant Halliburton Foundation will spend time with small groups of students in different classrooms to provide a more personal approach.

Grant Halliburton Foundation Director of Outreach and Education Sierra Sanchez said students respond better to classroom visits than assemblies because they get over-saturated with bullying assemblies and sometimes become desensitized to the topic. Sanchez said students have a belief bullying doesn’t exist anymore, which makes it harder to recognize it when they see it.

After the classroom visits, Sanchez said students will be given a brief, three-question survey. It will ask the questions, “Do you feel like you learned something, yes or no; Would you like to talk to a counselor, yes or no; Is it an emergency, yes or no.”

She said typically there will be an influx of students going to see a counselor following those surveys.

“Every time there is a yes, we see that as a success,” Sanchez said.

Warning signs

Grant Halliburton Foundation President Kevin Hall said the primary goal of the foundation is education. He explained the need for education has risen dramatically in the past couple of years.

Hall said a few years ago he would talk to schools that would tell him they didn’t need additional resources because they had programs in place. He has found that is no longer the case.

“Everybody needs it, everybody recognizes it,” Hall said. “We’re seeing this increased sense of urgency because we have a problem.”

He said a lack of connectedness is one root cause. Hall said with the amount of time students spend on their cellphones, they are losing a sense of community. He explained children that don’t feel connected are the ones that are struggling the most.

During the presentation to the school district, Sanchez talked about how a student will often hide depression by smiling, acting normal around parents and being very active. She said the program focuses on teaching children how to spot the warning signs and encourages them to report what they find to an adult they trust.

Sanchez said children in the LGBTQ community are especially at risk for having suicidal thoughts, anxiety, depression and other mental health issues. She said one thing the program teaches is sensitivity and inclusiveness. She explained one resource her foundation can put children in touch with is the Trevor Project, a helpline where students can talk to someone in the LGBTQ community who has been through it already.

Educating parents

Hall said education and connecting people to resources is the primary goal of the program. He said it isn’t just about educating students what to look for, but parents who also need to understand the changing world their children are living in.

“I always tell parents to listen to your kids,” Hall said. “If they show signs of struggling, maybe it is them being over-dramatic but don’t assume that, take the time to look into if there is a real problem.”

Sanchez said parents can be the biggest barriers to students getting help.

“It is hard for a student to tell their parents he or she is struggling,” Sanchez said.

Scott was enthusiastic about getting the program started in the next school year. He said even though the district will need time to fully implement all the programs, he directed the Grant Halliburton Foundation representatives to start the process to begin offering the classroom visits for the start of the 2019-2020 semester.

Hall said he had also reached out Sherman and was still talking with district officials about the program. Sherman ISD Director of Communications Kimberly Simpson could not confirm whether Sherman was planning on moving forward with accepting the grant.

Herald Democrat reporter Richard A. Todd can be reached at