The Beginning

One night in 1992, Claire Frese, then 11 years old, lay in bed so worried about her friends that she started to cry. She had been diagnosed with depression a year before, and was doing much better, but that night she told her mom, “There are so many kids just like me, and no one is helping them. We have to do something.” Three years later, with the help of her family, Kent State University and Mental Health America of Summit County, Claire finished the video Claire’s Story: A Child’s Perspective on Childhood Depression. That year, Claire’s Story was a finalist for a Freddie in the American Medical Association’s International Film Festival.

Lessons from Claire's Story

A teacher from Mental Health America of Summit County used the video in her suicide prevention classes, and found that kids could easily identify with Claire and her story. Many of them were already acquainted with the symptoms of depression she described. But it did not take long to realize that educating children about the symptoms of depression was not enough. They need the support and understanding of their teachers, family, and friends if they are to be helped.

Red Flags is Born

At an in-service for the staff of the Ohio Department of Mental in 1997, Claire and her family challenged the Department to assure that by the year 2000, education in mental health for school personnel, parents, and students would be offered every year in every middle school in Ohio. The Department agreed to fund a pilot, and the Red Flags Program was born. The pilot in 1998 included 10 schools, reaching 3,150 students. Pre- and post-tests showed significant increase in the understanding of clinical depression, and every school felt the program was “very needed.” However, something important about mental health education was also learned. Red Flags was not difficult or expensive to implement, and the materials were effective in identifying and getting help to students who needed it; but the pilot confirmed that every school is different. While each achieved Red Flag’s objectives, every school did so in a slightly different way. Flexibility became a hallmark of Red Flags from the beginning.

Growth and Development

The Ohio Department of Mental Health recognized the importance of Red Flags for universal prevention and early intervention, and made Red Flags kits available for all Ohio middle schools. The Department continued to evaluate Red Flags annually to assure its effectiveness and value. A number of schools around the country learned of Red Flags and also began to implement the program. Hundreds of thousands of children and adults nationwide have received the informational booklet, Red Flags in Children’s Behavior. Over the years, Red Flags and its materials were developed and refined by the schools and teachers who were using it. A new video, Thick ‘n Thin, and an updated curriculum were produced in 2008. Covering much of the same material as Claire’s Story, the new video emphasizes the importance of friendship, and how to seek help for a friend.

Conceptual Developments

Since the release of Claire’s Story, and the subsequent development of Red Flags, much has been learned about mental health, mental illness, and the need to nurture healthy habits from a very young age. Most noteworthy, we realize that attention to mental health is a fundamental component of educational infrastructure. Most schools, intuitively and in a variety of ways, are already supporting children’s mental health. Red Flags provides a conceptual foundation which unifies this work and makes it “intentional”.

Red Flags Moves to a New Level

In 2012, the horrific shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, and subsequent mass shootings, thrust the issue of mental health into public awareness. The whole country was beginning to realize the need for more effective responses to the issues of mental health. The decision was made to take Red Flags to a new level and make its conceptual framework and its materials available to schools across the country through a new non-profit organization called Red Flags National.

Fidelity to the Vision

Much remains the same: a commitment to school-based mental health education that is comprehensive, flexible, inexpensive, sustainable, and easy to implement. Red Flags is still the name; Red Flags National is its new home. The health and happiness of each individual child and access to help at the onset of difficulties remain as important to us as they were to that 12-year-old girl so many years ago who cried in the night for her friends.

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Using videos for students and low cost materials for teachers and parents, Red Flags offers schools a comprehensive, affordable, common sense approach to basic mental health education.
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