Atlanta's Strong STARTS Program Helps Educators Reach Troubled Kids

March 1, 1998

The program, Strong STARTS (Schools Taking Action to Reach Troubled Students), is a model initiative targeting the growing number of adolescents suffering from untreated emotional disorders that impact academic performance, social achievement and positive lifestyle choices. The program's fall kickoff seminar began with a keynote address by Alvin Poussaint, M.D., clinical professor and faculty associate dean for student affairs at Harvard Medical School, and featured focus sessions and panel discussions by national and local experts.

Alarmed by the growing rate of adolescent suicides in their city and nationwide, a group of Atlanta businessmen (100 Black Men of Atlanta Inc.) have joined forces with Solvay Pharmaceuticals Inc. to advise educators in the Atlanta public school system on how to recognize adolescent emotional disorders.

The program, Strong STARTS (Schools Taking Action to Reach Troubled Students), is a model initiative targeting the growing number of adolescents suffering from untreated emotional disorders that impact academic performance, social achievement and positive lifestyle choices. The program's fall kickoff seminar began with a keynote address by Alvin Poussaint, M.D., clinical professor and faculty associate dean for student affairs at Harvard Medical School, and featured focus sessions and panel discussions by national and local experts.

Angelo Sambunaris, M.D., director of psychiatry at Solvay Pharmaceuticals, led the session on anxiety disorders, and Ted Smith, M.D., director of child and adolescent services at Ridgeview Institute and professor of clinical psychiatry at Morehouse School of Medicine, spoke on the effects of depression in adolescents.

In addition, educators attending the seminar were given a resource manual that included detailed descriptions of behavioral manifestations, treatment options, myths and facts about emotional disorders, and a comprehensive guide on how to access community resources. They were also provided a classroom video featuring Atlanta Hawks all-star center Dikembe Mutumbo. In the video Mutumbo urges kids to discuss their feelings with someone they respect, and assures them that it's OK to ask for help. Strong STARTS' organizers hope this will serve to open an ongoing dialogue between teachers and students.

"It's a matter of priorities," said Arletta Brinson, Ph.D., Atlanta Public Schools resource psychologist. "We're doing a good job teaching our kids math and science. We need to be equally diligent about reaching kids in other ways, from those who may be quiet and withdrawn, to those who aggressively act out. Helping them will make them better students and more likely to succeed, not just in school, but in life itself."

Sambunaris agreed: "It's important for teachers and counselors to have an understanding of what to look for, what to recognize. And once they do, get [the student] into the system for an evaluation with recommendations as to how things should proceed, such as should there be family therapy, psychotherapy or medication."

Solvay's Commitment

According to Sambunaris, the Strong STARTS program dovetails well with Solvay's commitment to psychopharmacology and suicide research in children and adolescents.

"Solvay is providing logistical, administrative and financial support of research units on pediatric psychopharmacology-specifically, a program between Johns Hopkins University and Columbia University to test fluvoxamine in children with anxiety disorders; so they can then provide child psychiatrists with safety and efficacy data to help them in their prescribing." Sambunaris noted that Solvay has recently granted $1 million to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

According to recent studies, emotional disorders affect up to 8 million children; nearly two-thirds of whom never get any help. Unrecognized, untreated emotional disorders-often leading to violence and drugs-have other, even more alarming, outcomes. Since 1980, the overall adolescent suicide rate has increased 121%; and the suicide rate for adolescent African-American males has skyrocketed-increasing nearly 300%. More youth today die from suicide than homicide.

Ironically, handguns are a method to accomplish this most final of acts. When asked by Psychiatric Times why he felt there was such a dramatic increase in African-American adolescent suicides, Morehouse's Smith said, "I think one of the factors may be substance abuse, which is associated with suicide and violence; the other may be the escalation of handguns. There has been a significant number of suicides by adolescents, both black and white males, which are done with handguns. So I think handgun proliferation has had an impact on the increase in the number of suicides."

100 Black Men of Atlanta Inc.

As a result of these statistics, Strong STARTS' cosponsor, 100 Black Men of Atlanta Inc., a nonprofit civic and community action group comprising leaders in Atlanta's African-American community, is committed to improving child and adolescent mental health treatment, specifically in the Atlanta community.

Founded 11 years ago, the Atlanta chapter is one of 77 chapters across the United States, the United Kingdom and Jamaica. A prerequisite for membership is a distinguished record of community service.

Once joining, members of the Atlanta group affirm the chapter's mission statement which is to 1) serve as role models for our youth; 2) become a self-help and financially independent group that will assist charitable and other worthwhile community causes; 3) give their time and talent and resources back to the Atlanta community; 4) provide leadership to support issues and causes that effect positive change in our community; and 5) demand and demonstrate excellence in all of our endeavors.

In addition to the Strong STARTS program, the group is involved with Project Success, a partnership with the Atlanta Public School system to empower African-American youths through education, and "Stop the Violence!" a program designed to create awareness, demonstrate alternative solutions and increase conflict resolution skills, as well as advocate policies, legislation, regulations and actions that lead to achieving nonviolence in the African-American community.

According to Ray McClendon, president of the group, members are committed to hands-on initiatives that improve economic and educational opportunities and the overall quality of life for young African-Americans.

"It has traditionally been difficult for African-Americans to talk about emotional problems," McClendon said. "For many it is a sign of weakness. Strong STARTS helps students realize they are not alone, that psychological problems are not a sign of weakness and that it is OK to ask for help."

Currently, the organizers of Strong STARTS are in Phase II of the program, which entails on-site school outreach with coordinated visits to the target schools. In addition, quarterly follow-up meetings are scheduled with school staff, such as social workers, guidance counselors and assistant principals.