Marion Jr. High students learn importance of mental health with help from ‘Pawfficer Gary’

A southern Illinois police department is using man's best friend to help teach 7th graders the importance of understanding mental health.
Published: Dec. 15, 2022 at 5:33 PM CST
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MARION, Ill. (KFVS) - A southern Illinois police department is using man’s best friend to help teach 7th graders the importance of understanding mental health and knowing that many of us sometimes have the blues.

Marion Police Officer Jason Plichta and his four legged partner, Gary, are regular visitors at Marion Jr. High.

This is the first time this class has ever been taught in Marion and runs with the help of the University of Illinois 4-H Extension.

On Thursday, December 15, Officer Jason talked to a class of 7th graders about mental health. He had Gary with him.

“We were able to come in here and teach that your thoughts matter,” Plichta said.

He said it’s important that these young students know it is okay to talk to adults and open up about their feelings.

“These girls have been awesome in the 7th grade, all the three classes we’ve been teaching,” he continued. “Just kind of helps spread the word, especially at this young age and then use them to spread the word to other kids that might be afraid to come talk to us or adults that, hey, you know what, we have other friends and stuff like this that understand what they might be going through and can help them.”

The 7th grade girls presented their final projects to the class, all sharing what mental health means to them.

“To like speak up, like whenever we are feeling down or something just like speak our thoughts and feelings,” Dalecia Petty, 7th grader at Marion Jr. High, said.

Her classmate echoed that.

“Don’t, like, hold anything in and don’t, like, not tell anybody your problems,” Jayla Behrens said.

When asked how important they think mental health is, both students said, “very.”

Officer Plichta said he has seen major growth in terms of their understanding of mental health.

“A lot of people are just too scared to go and talk about it because they don’t want that stigma put on them and those titles put on them, so being able to let them know, especially, again, at this young age 12-13 years old, to be able to go out there and it’s okay to not be okay,” Plichta said.

He said that Pawfficer Gary helps ease any tensions in the classroom.

“Gary completely changes it from a completely tense situation and a very tense class we’re having to much more laid back, people much more open and willing to talk about things just by having Gary around. Whether it’s petting him, or even just looking at him. It just helps everybody kind of get that sense you know it is okay right now, this is a safer because even Gary is here just being with us,” Plichta continued.

This is the first time this class has ever been taught in Marion. Next semester, the 7th grade boys will have an opportunity to learn.