By Laura Adams Boycourt
Now, perhaps more than ever, access to mental health care is critical for children, and this includes providing them with support within the educational environment. We spoke with schools in the area to learn what they’re doing to make sure students are receiving the helping hand they need.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), “one in six U.S. youth aged 6-17 experience a mental health disorder each year, and half of all mental health conditions begin by age 14.” NAMI reports that attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), anxiety, depression, and behavioral problems are among the most diagnosed issues in children, and many kids aren’t getting the assistance they require.
Fortunately, resources at schools have the potential to offer much-needed support.
“Undiagnosed, untreated or inadequately treated mental illnesses can significantly interfere with a student’s ability to learn, grow and develop,” the Alliance explains. “Since children spend much of their productive time in educational settings, schools offer a unique opportunity for early identification, prevention, and interventions that serve students where they already are.”
Resources at the Ready
Shira R. Levy, a Nationally Certified School Psychologist in the Office of Psychological Services at Severna Park High School, says that before a new school year begins, all teachers and staff receive various types of mental health training including how to identify students who may need counseling.
The school has six counselors and a psychologist available to all students, who can either self-refer or be referred by parents or teachers, says Levy.
SPHS is also proud to offer its S.T.A.R. (short for “Students Taking Action Responsibly”) mental health prevention initiative that helps students recognize the importance of taking care of their minds.
Last year, all students at SPHS were given a “Counseling Connection” time, as part of the AACPS schedule, where they could check in with their counselors. Patricia Prosser, Principal of North Dorchester Middle School in Hurlock, says the school has two counselors who are available to meet with individual students as well as groups. In addition, a school social worker is on staff. All three have the ability to refer students to outside therapists and child psychologists. Greta MacGill, Lower and Middle School Counselor at Glenelg Country School, says support is available for students of all ages. “The counselors advocate for students and families within the school and are available to students for individual counseling, group counseling, and life skills development support.”
Like SPHS and most schools, students may self-refer or be referred by family or members of the school teaching staff. Counselors can also help families identify other resources outside of school when more intensive support is called for.
Dr. Micah L. Beaston, Mental Health Coordinator for Calvert County Public Schools, says the system employs school counselors, school social workers, and school psychologists. Beaston says families typically first connect with school counselors or staff. “The school counselor may address the concern or make a referral to the student service team who meets twice a month to address student needs through a collaborative approach,” she explains. In addition, “community partners including Calvert County Behavioral Health and Calvert Hospice provide specialized therapeutic services to students who require more intensive therapeutic support,” Beaston says.
A Closer Look at Counseling
Levy says the counseling center at SPHS offers students a variety of calming and mindfulness materials, such as fidgets and sand boxes, should they want to take a break during the school day.
The school’s S.T.A.R program “creates school-wide mental health prevention lessons encouraging students to be kind to their mind and to break mental health stigma,” Levy explains. “Different coping strategies are practiced and fun activities and games help students connect, relax and build relationships.”
S.T.A.R. also includes speakers who discuss mindfulness, suicide prevention, and breaking mental health stigma. At North Dorchester Middle School, Prosser says counselors meet with students in several ways. “At NDMS, the counselors use group sessions, lunch bunches, mediation sessions and push into the classrooms for lessons.”
Giving students choices and keeping them engaged in different ways can make a big difference, says Prosser. “Another way I am trying to address mental health is to provide as many options and choices in school as possible. It is sort of coming at the issue of mental health sideways – but it engages the children and families and having that engagement is a huge step towards mental health.”
At Glenelg, MacGill says the school’s counseling program is meant to support students by helping them to develop social skills, resolve conflict, manage stress, and make good decisions. “Throughout the school year, the counselors also provide grade-appropriate character education addressing social, emotional, health/wellness, and physical development,” she says. And it’s not just students who can benefit from Glenelg’s mental health resources. “The school counselors also support the community through parent workshops and faculty in-service training.”
In Calvert County, public schools offer individual, small group, or whole-school mental health resources. “We employ a variety of activities and strategies to meet the diverse needs of our students,” Beaston says. “Each mental health professional possesses individualized areas of expertise and utilizes a variety of strategies to address the needs of the students. Many of the mental health professionals have been trained in therapeutic interventions including mindfulness, Solution Focused Therapy, and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.”
Counseling in the Midst of COVID
At North Dorchester, Prosser says the school’s mental health team has been an integral part of taking care of students, both pre-COVID and in the midst of the pandemic.
“Mental health has been one of our biggest issues for years, and even more so this past year,” she says. “Our two counselors are immensely important to the school.” Connecting with students has always been at the forefront at Glenelg, says MacGill. This school year, these connections combined with providing students with stability—both physical and mental—will be of the utmost importance. “This year, it’s vital for students to regain normalcy and structure within the school environment,” she explains.
For Levy, the past year-plus has definitely reinforced the necessity of taking care of students’ mental health. “This year has been such a challenging year for families and teenagers,” she says. “Isolation and ambiguous loss and grief over life as we know it has definitely taken a toll on levels of anxiety and depression world-wide.”
For its part, Levy says SPHS will continue to “advocate to break mental health stigma, as our mental health is just as important to take care of as is our physical health. The more the school knows about student mental health outside of school, the better we can help our students with supporting their success from a wellbeing perspective and an academic perspective.”