5 Ways School Districts Can Address Student Mental Health Issues

Schools across the country are seeing an increase in the number of students dealing with with mental health issues amid a waning but still ongoing pandemic.

Some school districts are hiring more staff to meet the need; others struggle to do so.

About 12% of students attend schools in districts that do not have a psychologist at all, and only 8% attend schools with the recommended ratio of one psychologist per 500 students. Counselor-student ratios are only marginally better with only 14% of students attending schools with the recommended ratio of one counselor per 250 students. The need is higher in districts serving more students of color.

What should cash-strapped and overwhelmed school districts do in this mental health crisis?

The Cherry Creek School District in Greenwood Village, Colorado, has hired more staff, strengthened partnerships with health agencies and hospitals, and contracted with an online provider to provide therapy to students.

But the most unorthodox thing the district is doing is building a mental health day treatment center, in partnership with a local hospital and university. ensuring that students struggling with issues such as severe anxiety, depression, substance abuse and eating disorders can get care as soon as possible.

While their efforts still fall short of the scale of need, district leaders hope their efforts can provide some lessons for districts struggling to respond to a time of crisis for adults and students.

“You really have to think outside the box,” said Tony Poole, assistant superintendent of special populations. “If we have a system that just doesn’t work, what can you do? What can you do to get more support for children? »

Make an inventory of current services and programs

One of the first things districts can do is take a thorough look at the services and staff that already exist to support mental health. Is it sufficient? Where are they below? What does the community (students, families, teachers and principals) have to say about the needs and if and how they are met?

Dr. Bruno Anthony, a professor of child psychiatry at the University of Colorado’s Anschutz Medical Campus who works with the Cherry Creek School District on the mental health day treatment center, said he still suggests an inventory for school districts.

“You look very carefully at your needs,” Dr. Anthony said. “You look very carefully at what you already have in place, and then you look to see, across the country, what the experts are saying is really the way forward to meet those needs.

This is one of the ways Cherry Creek officials have increased resources over the years, especially during the pandemic era.

The district hired a director of social-emotional learning this year to focus more on prevention efforts, including working on universal mental health supports, suicide prevention and social-emotional learning programs. , and building a stronger culture and communities, according to Steve Nederveld, the district’s director of mental health.

Cherry Creek also convened a mental health task force, made up of students, parents, principals, teachers, district administrators, community members and other stakeholders, to ask questions. questions about what changes could be made to better serve students and their mental health needs. Many of the new programs the district is implementing this year stem from the task force, Nederveld said.

“The main thing we heard was more prevention, more support in schools, that counselors and mental health providers were so stretched that they felt they needed more of those two resources,” said he declared. “And that when they needed mental health support outside of schools, it was difficult to provide those services.”

The district foundation created an emergency fund to help students access mental health services outside of their parents’ insurance networks. A new partnership with Hazel Health, an online health company that provides physical and mental health supports, will offer free therapy to students within 24 hours of contacting the company. About half of Hazel’s clinicians are people of color and between 30-40% are bilingual in Spanish and English. About half of Cherry Creek’s students are students of color.

It’s essential, he says.

“It has always been a challenge to find therapists or mental health professionals who connect with our students as much as I think the clinicians at Hazel Health could, given that there is such a group of employees diverse,” Nederveld said.

Consult the experts

Dr. K. Ron-Li Liaw, head of mental health at Children’s Hospital Colorado, who is also working on the mental health day treatment program with the district, said that before starting their strategy in middle school, they had contacted Sharon. Hoover, the co-director of the National Center for School Mental Health, which is based at the University of Maryland.

Check with the experts for evidence-based approaches and advice, Dr. Liaw said.

The center’s website and experts have a ton of resources to help districts navigate growing needs and tailor mental health supports for students.

The organization has “everything from how to build a multi-level support system to how to do a district-wide assessment of your mental health supports and needs,” Dr Liaw said.

There are also free online educational modules for districts.

Partnership with local hospitals and health services

Contact local children’s hospitals to see if it’s possible to collaborate on a treatment center like the one Cherry Creek is building or if hospitals can share resources by bringing in counselors, psychiatrists and psychologists to supplement the mental health staff already available in schools, Poole says.

“If I was a superintendent in a school district and was desperate for mental health supports for my children, I would start contacting all the hospital CEOs in my area and ask if they would like to partner up and consider solutions. creative ways to partner and provide services to children and families,” said Poole.

Cherry Creek has also partnered with Aurora Mental Health Center and AllHealth Network Colorado for therapy services. He is now working with HealthONE, a public healthcare provider for the first time this year, with the goal of eventually ensuring that there is a full-time or part-time school therapist in every school building.

Consider building a pipeline

As school districts currently face a crisis, Poole urged districts to think about the future and their role in building a workforce of social workers, psychologists, counselors and other health care professionals. Mental Health.

In recent decades, school districts have initiated personal development programs to encourage students to become teachers.

A similar line of thinking should apply to mental health support staff, he said.

“We need to start working with our own kids to grow our own,” Poole said. “Do you want to grow up and become a psychiatrist? Do you want to grow up to be a psychologist and become a licensed clinical social worker? Let’s give you some lessons on this. Let’s look at it as a career path. … Psychologists, licensed clinical social workers, speech language pathologists, occupational therapists – we are dying for these people.

Focus on early intervention and prevention

Because students spend about eight hours a day in schools, districts need to prioritize early intervention and prevention programs, Nederveld said.

“If we don’t have mental health support in a building to assess, screen, provide support, provide referrals to outside community mental health resources, I don’t know where students can identify and connect to services if they weren’t for the schools,” he said.

This includes improving the school climate and culture, ensuring that students have a trusted adult in the building they can go to if they have a problem, conducting threat assessments and suicide screening, and training teachers so they know what to look for to spot students in distress and nurture them.

A new director of social-emotional learning, for example, will oversee hiring and professional development around mental health support, determine what services need to be put in place, and oversee the safety program.

But the district expects its mental health staff to be part of the teaching and learning as well.

“So having our building and mental health staff pushing into the classrooms to teach some of those lessons or social-emotional support that’s probably beyond the scope of what most people think of when they think about mental health,” Nederveld said. “They think only some students need crisis support or mental health treatment – ​​which is true – but we would say that all of our students need to learn how to develop their social-emotional capacity .”

It also pilots universal screening tests twice a year in eight of its 67 schools on social-emotional skills. Part of the survey will ask students if they have a trusted adult on staff who they can talk to if they have a problem.

“This will be an effort that we believe can help us identify students that we need to pay a little more attention to if they are not connected to an adult in the building,” he said. “How do we establish these relationships? »

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