School Safety Linked To Mental Health Resources, Director Says

SNOW HILL — As part of an effort to make schools safer by addressing emotional issues in teens and young adults, the Worcester County Health Department is requesting $112,198 from the County Commission to bolster the current Crisis Response Team as well as add a new clinical social worker who would specialize in the high-risk 14- to 26-year-old age range.

“A key factor in school safety is the management of mental health issues,” wrote Health Officer Debbie Goeller in a letter to the commission.

In her letter, Goeller linked her department’s efforts with mental wellness with the security measures being requested both by the Sheriff’s Department and the Board of Education.

Goeller was adamant this week that school safety starts with a strong counseling foundation, especially for students and young adults in that high-risk age range.

“We are most concerned about the 14-26-year-old age range with serious emotional disturbances that would have the potential for acting out in or against a school setting,” she said.

That 12-year period can be difficult for a lot of reasons, continued Goeller. At the younger end of the spectrum, it means going to and then dealing with high school, either graduating or dropping out. For some, it also means college. Either way, at some point all will have to handle enhanced responsibility and the freedom that comes with that, including easier access to drinking and drugs.

“They’re beginning to have to deal with the adult world and [some] don’t necessarily cope too well,” Goeller told the commission.

That period is also when teens and young adults are susceptible to becoming emotionally overwhelmed.
“It is the age of their first psychotic break generally speaking,” said Goeller.

To address those high-risk youth, Goeller asked that the commission consider hiring a clinical social worker to specialize in the focused age bracket. The social worker would be available to “engage and link this high-risk population to treatment prior or during the decomposition and crisis stage,” according to Goeller’s letter.

The cost for the additional personnel would be $78,764 between salary and benefits.

In the same vein, Goeller pointed out that the county’s Crisis Response Team (CRT), while operational for 13 years, is in need of a booster shot of funding.

“The Crisis Response Team has been level funded for the past 13 years which does not cover the cost,” wrote Goeller, “of the four full-time licensed clinical social workers employed within the program.”

The CRT is vital to addressing mental health concerns in Worcester, according to Goeller, and answers calls for service through local law enforcement, Atlantic General Hospital, the Department of Social Services, and other community partners. Tracy Tilghman, director of mental health for Worcester, revealed that the CRT answers between 600 and 750 calls every year, judging by the last three years of data.

“Not only is it high volume, it is very intensive work,” added Tilghman, who said calls usually last between 90 minutes and three hours.

Someone from the four-member CRT is always on call, noted Goeller.

“There are four people that provide 24-7 coverage throughout the year. They are spread very thin, they are highly qualified,” she said. “And yes, they are on call.”

Goeller requested $33,435 in additional funding to reinforce the CRT since the level funding has not climbed with inflation, forcing the Health Department to juggle other revenue to keep the program running at full. The inflation gap has grown to the point where a funding intervention from the county is needed, said Goeller.

Some of that total $112,198 might find its way to the department through another avenue besides the county, added Goeller. However, right now outside sources, like using money generated by the casino at Ocean Downs, are uncertain.

“Everybody always talks about the casino money,” Goeller remarked.

State funding for mental health programs might be in the works, she told the commission, though most of that seems likely to head to schools in urban centers.

Commission President Bud Church wasn’t able to promise Goeller the requested funding Tuesday, but said he agrees with her that improvements to mental wellness on the shore are necessary.

“I think there’s a ticking time bomb out there. And I think it’s something that we need to address on the mental health issues fairly quickly,” he said. “It seems like every time something happens something else happens and then something else happens.”

Commissioner Jim Bunting felt likewise and said that even after hearing the school board’s security presentation that he was impressed by the need behind the Health Department’s request.

“If I had to prioritize what we’ve heard today, it would be on the top,” he told Goeller.

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