Ewing Schools Release: Attitudes In Reverse® and Ewing Public Schools Partner to Improve Student Mental Health and Prevent Suicide
Submitted by Maria Petsos, District Supervisor of Special Education, Ewing Public Schools
Thirteen years ago, Kurt and Tricia Baker and their daughter Katelyn lost Kenny, their son and brother respectively, to suicide. Soon after the family embarked on a mission to educate the public about mental health, related disorders and suicide prevention. They founded Attitudes In Reverse® (AIR®) to achieve this goal.
This year, after a tumultuous two years living through the COVID-19 pandemic, the Bakers met with Ewing Schools Supervisor Maria Petsos and Antheil Elementary School Principal Clifford “Kip” Harrison to discuss ways to collaborate and improve student mental and emotional health. This union between AIR and The Ewing Public Schools has provided the district the opportunity to create a strong partnership to improve youths’ mental health and enhance well-being as the school community seeks to improve our supports for students, staff, and families. Activities with AIR have already begun this year at Antheil Elementary School as part of a pilot program. Ultimately, the plan is to move various AIR programs through all district schools in the next few years.
One of the developed initiatives involves the use of therapy dogs in school. “Upon our return to in-person instruction, we started discussions right away about how AIR can fit in the schools,” Ms. Petsos said. “Once we saw how students reacted to AIR’s Dog Therapy initial visit to Antheil Elementary School, and the benefits of it, we definitely wanted to fit it into schools’ schedules. I’ve seen the power of AIR’s work, and I’ve been a huge supporter ever since.” According to Petsos, therapy dogs have the ability to relax people and lower stress and tension in students. “Dogs can be such a calming force,” she stated. “Research has shown that simply petting a dog lowers the stress hormone cortisol, while the social interaction between people and their dogs actually increases levels of the feel-good hormone oxytocin (the same hormone that bonds mothers to babies).”
“The Bakers and others have been brave and so incredibly helpful in sharing their stories. It provides greater insight to the importance of mental health, their work and what can be done to help our students,” Principal Harrison remarked. The Ewing Schools is not the first Mercer County District to embrace the program. West Windsor and Hopewell Valley have already established AIR programs in their schools. “This organization is an outstanding asset to the district as we face many challenges while we provide mental health supports to students struggling to deal with issues arising from the pandemic,” Petsos shared.
“We admire the Ewing Public Schools for the initiatives they are undertaking in the school district to give students, faculty, staff and parents the support they need to strengthen their mental health and help prevent the feeling of hopelessness that too often leads to suicide,” Kurt Baker added. “Our partnership with The Ewing Public Schools means a lot to us, and we believe we will save lives by working together.” The Ewing Schools continues to plan for more services students in the future. The district is continually looking at additional ways to provide meaningful mental health support for students, families, and staff. “This comprehensive, multipronged approach should be replicated in all other school districts,” the Bakers commented. “Everyone needs to be educated and actively involved to strengthen our youths’ mental and emotional health.”
“In Mercer County, we are in the middle of an alarming trend regarding teenage mental health concerns,” Ewing Schools Superintendent Michael Nitti stated. “The county superintendents have initiated a Call to Action that has helped to raise awareness and connect partners in this fight. Our work with AIR is an important part of this meaningful endeavor.”
Attitudes In Reverse® (AIR™) was established by Tricia, Kurt and Katelyn Baker of Plainsboro, NJ, in 2010, soon after their son/brother Kenny died by suicide following a long battle against severe depression and anxiety. Their mission is to save lives by educating students about mental health, related disorders and suicide prevention. Since January 2011, they have presented to more than 70,000 students in middle and high schools and colleges in New Jersey, New York, Vermont, Missouri, Texas and Arizona. AIR also offers Youth Mental Health First Aid instruction and includes the AIR Dogs: Paws for Minds™ program, bringing dogs into schools to help students de-stress and engage in the conversation about mental health. In addition, AIR trains and certifies Emotional Support Animals and offers a lunch-and-learn program for businesses. For more information about AIR™, please visit www.attitudesinreverse.org or call 609-945-3200.