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'Peace of Mind' initiative provides mental health support in Catholic schools

Catholic school teachers, principals and support staff from across the Twin Cities participated in training Tuesday focused on mental health and wellness.

MENDOTA, Minnesota — Staff with Catholic schools across the Twin Cities metro area came together Tuesday to prepare for the upcoming school year. But the training did not focus on academics. Instead, it was centered around mental health and wellness.

"When a child walks through a classroom, you can tell in the first few seconds what that child's morning was like. It's really unfortunate to think that that child maybe had a rough morning dealing with something and we're going to have that child sit down and anticipate that they're ready to learn. Well, we need to realize that not everybody is at that spot at every moment of the day," said Brian Ragatz, president of Catholic Schools Center of Excellence (CSCOE). 

The nonprofit created the mental health initiative "Peace of Mind" in the midst of the pandemic last year. The goal is to help not only students but also parents and school staff work through struggles and improve mental health and well-being both inside and outside of the classroom. 

CSCOE funds the initiative at no cost to schools. 

The pandemic has spurred more conversations around students' mental health. 

"Kids have been really impacted by this in so many different ways. They've had... highly increased anxiety; they're worrying about their families; they're worrying about their health; they're being exposed to issues and questions that children usually don't have to face like serious illness. They've lost people in their lives," said Sarah Lilja, an elementary school counselor at Presentation of Mary School in Maplewood. 

"It's really a groundbreaking idea to bring this curriculum into Catholic schools. Every school should be doing this and it's really, I think, phenomenal and almost moving to me to see that CSCOE is providing the funding and support to make this happen," Lilja said. 

The program partners with Phoenix School of Counseling to provide support to 78 Catholic schools, or approximately 21,000 students and their families, from preschool through 8th grade. 

On Tuesday, about 100 staff members from 10 Catholic schools participated in Peace of Mind 2.0 training at St. Peter's Church in Mendota. Dr. Jules Nolan of Phoenix School of Counseling and CSCOE led the training on how to address childhood anxiety and mental health. 

"I wanted to do this training so it's not just my teachers who understand what social emotional learning (SEL) is. I have my administrative assistant from the office here, my advancement director, my custodian, because all of these adults touch children's lives on a daily basis," said Dawn Biren, principal at St. Dominic School in Northfield. 

Biren said they spent last year focused just on the staff learning about SEL. Now they are ready to bring that support to their students. 

"Social emotional learning, a lot of Catholic schools we say we educate the whole child. Mind, body and spirit. This is a way of helping our children with the mind piece of it," Biren said. 

SEL helps kids work on everything from coping with their feelings to maintaining positive relationships. 

"From the... first person that child sees in a day to the last person, everybody plays a role in the development of that child and it's important we all get trained, especially during these challenging times," Ragatz said. 

Tuesday's training is only the beginning. There will also be Zoom calls and potentially in-person sessions for parents as well as programs, such as retreats, for students. 

Teachers will get coaching throughout the entire school year. The Peace of Mind 2.0 initiative also provides schools with a professional school counselor one more day per week.