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Westmoreland panel to discuss concussions and student mental health

Tribune-Review - 5/13/2019

May 13-- May 13--An athlete who breaks a limb likely will be fitted with a cast that makes recovery visible to all. Getting past the lingering effects of a concussion or other traumatic brain injuries often doesn't include a prop that makes the process as outwardly apparent.

"A brain injury is a silent, invisible disability," said Natalie Smith, team leader for Westmoreland Intermediate Unit's BrainSTEPS (Strategies Teaching Educators, Parents and Students) program.

In an effort to throw some light on the subject, Smith is accepting reservations for "Understanding the Effects of Concussions on Mental Health," a panel discussion set for 1-3 p.m. Wednesday at the intermediate unit offices in Hempfield.

The panel, which includes a traumatic brain injury survivor and sports medicine concussion expert, will discuss ways of providing support to "children and adolescents who have had concussions and are experiencing worsening or new mental health needs because of pre-existing mental health problems, improper concussion management or changes in social activity."

BrainSTEPS teams, which include medical and educational professionals, create individualized plans to help students who have suffered a brain injury re-enter the classroom. Such plans may include alternative tests for students who have difficulty with their short-term memory or with learning new information, Smith said.

Over the past eight years, about 125 students have been referred to the BrainSTEPS program in Westmoreland County.

According to the Brain Injury Association of Pennsylvania, children in the state suffer approximately 22,000 concussions each year. Smith noted that figure is a low estimate, based solely on emergency room visits. It doesn't include children who may be seen at an urgent care center or by a family physician.

Researchers continue working to understand more about the interplay between concussions and mental health, Smith said.

"I have seen kids who have had a third or fourth concussion who play soccer or rugby and just seem to bounce back," she said. "Another student may have one concussion and may struggle for years. It's a very individual disorder, which makes research difficult."

Fortunately, the majority of students who suffer a concussion recover without the assistance of Smith's team.

"Eighty-five percent of the time, a student will recover in a four- to six-week window," she said. "It's the students who have not recovered or have had multiple concussions that we see."

Most of the adolescent students the team helps have suffered a concussion or other brain injury through sports or a vehicle crash, Smith said. Younger students may have been injured in a fall or while riding a sled or a bicycle.

"I started realizing, when I would talk to families, students and teachers, there wasn't so much of a concern about their academic performance, but the social aspect -- depression and anxiety," she said.

"With the elementary students I see, a lot of their anxiety or their emotional needs are manifested behaviorally. They may throw tantrums or run out of the room.

"With the adolescent population, they hide that something is wrong. They say they lost their homework, not that they can't push through it. They become reclusive. They think, 'My friends won't notice that there's something different about me if I don't talk to them.' "

Eliminating the stigma concerning brain disorders is a major hurdle, Smith said.

"I want to open up the doors for families and students to know its OK to look for supports, to work on their condition collaboratively and early on, so the student doesn't suffer in silence and doesn't struggle and wonder, 'What's wrong with me? I look normal on the outside.'

"It's not, 'Oh, you just have a headache.' We take it seriously and work to get them back to feeling a little bit more like themselves."

The BrainSTEPS model in Pennsylvania was created by the state Department of Health in 2007. BrainSTEPS is funded by the state Health Department and the Education Department'sBureau of Special Education, via the Pennsylvania Training and Technical Assistance Network, and is implemented by the Brain Injury Association of Pennsylvania.

Wednesday's discussion panel participants include:

--Lesa Vivio, a counselor who is certified to assist patients who have suffered a brain injury.

--Dr. James Masterson, who is affiliated with the Excela Health Sports Concussion Program.

--Dr. Raymond Pan, a psychiatrist with the UPMC Sports Medicine Concussion Program.

--Renee Raviart-Dadey, who works with STEP UP Westmoreland, an initiative to connect students with mental health resources.

--Laurie Golobish, director of student services at Greater Latrobe School District.

--Dawn Hildenbrand, BrainSTEPS team member and director of special education at Yough School District.

Those with questions about the panel discussion or BrainSTEPS may contact Smith at [email protected]

Jeff Himler is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jeff at 724-836-6622, [email protected] or via Twitter .

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