“It takes a village to raise a child. It takes a community to save one.”
That’s what is written on a billboard along U.S. 50 near Marion-Kay Spices in Brownstown in recognition of May being Mental Health Awareness Month.
Melanie O’Neal, executive director of Mental Health America of Jackson County, said the Suicide Prevention Awareness Coalition has approved three billboards to be on display this month in Jackson County.
“Each sign will have a different mental health topic message along with a shortened version of our website,” O’Neal said.
Other billboard locations include Community Drive across from Seymour High School and at U.S. 31 and U.S. 50 in Seymour.
“We are just trying to educate and provide resources to our community about mental health,” she said. “We want people to know it’s OK to not feel OK.”
The MHA of Jackson County website has a list of resources that are available, and there also are free online mental health screenings.
The screenings are designed to help individuals determine if they are experiencing symptoms of a mental health disorder. The screenings include depression test, postpartum depression test, anxiety test, psychosis test, bipolar test, eating disorder test, PTSD test, parent test, youth test, addiction test and a work health survey.
O’Neal said they will find out at the end of May if MHA of Jackson County has been selected to be an AmeriCorps host site.
“I have requested for us to be a host site so we can get an AmeriCorps member to work here at this office for a 10-month assignment,” she said. “We want to launch a crisis intervention training team. I’ve already got the grant dollars set aside, and a very big chunk of that came from the Schneck Foundation.”
The crisis intervention team training would be 40 hours for one full week of classroom training where the presenters would be mental health professionals from here in the community.
“Attendees will be police officers, first responders, ambulance personnel, firefighters and Schneck ER staff because they’re the ones treating the patient in a crisis situation,” O’Neal said.
She hopes to bring at least one person from each organization into the classroom setting and teach them about mental health.
“If you haven’t experienced life with someone who has had a mental health diagnosis, you just don’t know,” she said.
Another initiative of MHA of Jackson County is the I’m Thumbody Special self-esteem program for preschool children.
“In this program, we teach kids how to talk about their feelings because if we don’t learn how to talk about our feelings in a healthy way, we can get sick because it makes us feel bad,” O’Neal said.
Right now, MHA serves Head Start preschool classrooms and Child Care Network, about nine in total.
When O’Neal goes into classrooms, she brings a poster of Mr. Thumbody, rolls the kids’ thumbs in bright-colored ink and has them put their thumbprint on the poster and write their names next to it.
“They need to know it’s OK to be aggravated, frustrated and mad and that it’s OK and it’s normal, but we have to learn how to talk about it,” she said.
O’Neal said children need to find someone they can trust to talk through conflict and resolution.
“It’s a really neat program, and we’re wanting to expand it, so we now have an I’m Thumbody Special committee, which consists of a few board members and other people in the community who care about kids and the mental health of kids,” O’Neal said.
She hopes to get some program-related materials and open a small library at the MHA office, located at 113 N. Chestnut St., Seymour. Then the in-home, state-approved day care facilities could check out those materials and share them with the children in their day care facilities.
“We are going to expand and serve additional classrooms, but I need help rowing the boat because I can’t keep doing it by myself. So now, we have a committee and some outside interest,” she said. “If we want to grow the program, we have to grow our volunteers to keep up with it.”
The lessons typically last 30 to 45 minutes. The kids all receive something to take home with them, such as a smiley face folder or stickers or other small item that shows an emotion.
O’Neal said after she watched the documentary film “Reject” and saw the evidence and research of what age group they should be trying to reach, her jaw literally dropped.
“It’s preschool-age children because even when you get to third grade, if you haven’t been taught how to properly resolve conflict and deal with your emotions and feelings, its so difficult to change,” O’Neal said.
She said that’s why they want to expand the I’m Thumbody Special program and reach more preschool teachers and preschoolers so they can start learning a healthier way to communicate and start resolving problems.
“It’s vitally important for them and for our community, and what we learn at the preschool level stays with us throughout our lifetime,” O’Neal said. “So if I don’t learn how to solve conflicts at a young age, I’m going to keep repeating that throughout my whole lifetime.”
Besides being the director of MHA of Jackson County, O’Neal is the planning coordinator for The Arc of Jackson County.
A new program will be launched this summer by The Arc based on an idea O’Neal found on a nonprofit page she follows on Facebook.
“There’s a woman who ships spa baskets to special needs families all over the United States, and with her permission, I’ve borrowed her idea,” she said. “I’d like to keep the program here in Jackson County.”
To acknowledge that caregivers have a hard job in taking care of a special needs child, The Arc wants to recognize those families and give them a gift.
“Not just for special needs homes, but we have 21 direct service provider homes, such as Help at Home, DSI and Indiana Mentor, 19 service providers in Jackson County and two in Jennings, and we want to extend this to those caregivers, as well,” O’Neal said.
She said they want to put together spa-themed bags and let people nominate families and caregivers who care for someone who has special needs. The program hasn’t been fine-tuned yet, and more details will be coming soon.
In the meantime, O’Neal is accepting any type of pampering items, like lotion, body wash, candles or wax melts, loofah poufs, keychains, handmade washcloths, makeup, hair care, makeup and similar items, to put into the spa bags.
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Anyone interested in volunteering with Mental Health America of Jackson County or donating items for The Arc of Jackson County spa-themed bags should email Melanie O’Neal at [email protected] or call 812-522-3480.