Project AWARE emphasizes the importance of mental health | news

Woodward Superintendent of Schools Kyle Reynolds received a call from the Oklahoma State Department of Education (OSDE) a few years ago to see if he was interested in a grant that would support children’s mental health.

The program was Project AWARE

Northwest Oklahoma is considered a mental health desert due to a shortage of licensed mental health professionals. The desert is classified at a ratio of one in every 150,000 for rural and one in every 30,000 for urban.

“The mental health of our students and all staff is of paramount importance. We’ve seen during the pandemic how this exacerbated mental health issues for everyone. We’re always looking for ways to help our employees and ensure they have the breaks they need and have the right coping mechanisms in place. We’ve had a few mental health days over the past year where employees can participate in yoga or play golf,” Reynolds said.

OSDE partners with the Oklahoma State Department of Mental Health and schools across Oklahoma for the grants.

Jeff Dismukes of the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health says, “Mental health education creates the awareness and resources needed for individuals and their families, and helps break the stigma that all too often is associated with it. Positive mental health is an essential part of learning, early detection and access to appropriate services can prevent the progression of problems later in life. These positive impacts support not only the individual student but also their larger community as they transition into adulthood.”

Project AWARE aims to help state and local governments raise awareness of mental health issues among school-age youth. Training educators and other adults who care for youth to recognize and respond to mental health issues. Connect children, youth and families suffering from behavioral health problems to appropriate services.

“For our students, we know there are strategies we can use to help kids build hope and resilience, and we know these things will help them improve their academic performance, but more importantly, they will… End up living longer and leading a more productive life,” said Reynolds.

A fairly new problem in schools is vaping and all the dangers that it entails. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that in Oklahoma in 2019, 57% of college students used electronic vapor products such as e-cigarettes, vapes, or vape pens.

The Woodward Schools used approximately $65,000 of the CARES funds earmarked for Air Quality Improvement and Prevention to install vape detectors in high and middle schools. If found, information will be sent to administration and SROs on campus.

“The students figured out what was going on and it pretty much curbed the vaping but it hasn’t shut it down yet. So now it comes down to where do they get the devices and the content that’s in them? Most of them are nicotine-based vapes, some CBD and some cases of THC in them,” Reynolds said.

“It’s interesting to see how vaping has evolved from being a viable alternative to smoking and some people still see it that way, but I think the concern is research or the lack thereof. We don’t know what the content is or what the long-term effects will be. How that relates to mental health is that it’s an unhealthy coping mechanism that can lead to alcohol abuse and/or substance abuse,” he added.

The number of adolescents reporting poor mental health is increasing. Forming strong bonds and connecting with youth can protect their mental health, according to the state Department of Mental Health.

“The cultural shift we have seen from incorporating the mental health conversation and Project AWARE (Advancing Wellness and Resiliency in Education) into our school is amazing. The continuous cycle of improving our practices and finding what works best for our students and staff is one of the most important parts. It’s an ongoing process that we must continue to evaluate to place each individual where they can make a lasting impact on overall wellbeing and success,” said Andi Hopper, Project AWARE Community Grants Manager for Woodward Public Schools.

The CDC reports that about one in six teenagers has made a suicide plan in the past year, a 44% increase since 2009.

Reynolds said: “We’re trying to figure out what the core problem is? One of the things that changed my life is learning about ACE scores, the negative childhood experiences. We watched the Resiliency video in High Plains, which the Potts Foundation sponsored showings across the state. I was just thinking how I could have lived so long in my career without knowing about it because it just makes so much sense.

“These ACEs in childhood can lead to such adverse health outcomes later in life. I keep some of these ACE facts to myself. One is that a student with a score of four increases the risk of chronic lung disease by 390%, risk of hepatitis by 240%, depression by 460%, probability of suicide with a score of four or more increases by 1,220 %!”

Another thing Reynolds learned from the book Hope Rising is the science of hope. Written by Casey Gwinn, JD and Chan Hellman.

Corresponding hoperisingoklahoma.orgMore than 2,000 studies have shown that hope is the single best indicator of success in education, work, health, mental health, social relationships, family, and trauma recovery.

Reynolds said, “Now we know ways we can help children overcome these things by building resilience and instilling hope in our students. With hope, students can have a better future and have some kind of control over it themselves. Visualizing and understanding can be difficult for students who have only experienced their family members being in prison or other trauma. Our vision for the future is to break this cycle.”

Reynolds found that many teachers, staff, and counselors spent hours and days training to make Project AWARE work.

“It’s a group effort. We are increasingly understanding the issues our students are dealing with and what we can do to help them. Doing less is a disservice to our students,” he said.

To learn more about Project AWARE at Woodward, visit

To learn more about children’s mental health and resources for schools and families, visit the department’s website at

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