Statistics Confirm More Mental Health Services Needed In Schools

BERLIN –  Last year, 21 Stephen Decatur Middle School students were referred to Peninsula Regional Medical Center for mental health evaluation through emergency petition.

Just what does that mean? They were talking about suicide.

“Last year we really started to notice mental health issues in our children,” Principal Lynne Barton said. “Obviously middle school students have their issues but it’s much more than that.”

Barton, who provided that information about her school at a community meeting this month, went on to share startling statistics from the Berlin facility, which serves seventh- and eighth-graders. Fourteen students have no fixed address. Eighteen students have an incarcerated parent. Fourteen students have a deceased parent. Two students are in foster care. Sixty-five students see school-based counselors.

Students at Stephen Decatur Middle School aren’t the only ones facing those types of challenges. Mental health has become a key concern for local educators.

“We have seen an uptick in the need for mental health services with our student population,” said Steve Price, the school system’s chief safety officer. “There’s a growing demand for services across the spectrum.”

While there is an increased demand, officials are working hard to ensure needs are met. Worcester County Public Schools added a mental health services coordinator role to an existing administrator’s responsibility last year and is offering more training opportunities to staff. In July, for example, the school system will host “Psychology of School Threat Assessments,” a two-day training session that will examine the psychological and behavioral aspects of threat assessment and management. Price said that training and the school system’s other mental health initiatives were being supported through $432,000 in grant funding made available by the Maryland Safe to Learn Act of 2018.

In a job listing posted for a dedicated 12-month coordinator of mental health on Wednesday, the county outlined the general duties of the qualified candidate. The posting read, “CPS. Working with community-based mental health providers, the coordinator will develop a process and oversee implementation of mental health services.  The coordinator helps to establish and implement mental health supports in meeting the needs of students such that they are able to access their instructional program.  The role will be responsible for developing and delivering professional development programs aligned with the requirements of the Safe to Learn Act of 2018.”

The school system also continues to work closely with the Worcester County Health Department. The department now offers services directly in each of the county’s schools.

“We have 14 licensed professionals and three social work interns working in the schools,” said Lauren Williams, social work supervisor for the health department’s behavioral health unit. “We added one this year because of increased referrals and are looking to add two to three more.”

Those professionals, who typically see students on a weekly basis, offer counseling and medication management. In addition, the health department offers a variety of other services, including a psychiatric rehabilitation program, youth care coordination, START and a crisis response team. The crisis response team works with local law enforcement in situations where a child is actively making suicidal or homicidal threats.

Williams said that broad spectrum anxiety was the most common mental health disorder among local students but that it could lead to a variety of diagnoses, such as depression and ADHD among others.

Countywide, health officials say there is a definite increase in the number of youth accessing mental health services. Public Behavioral Health System data shows that in fiscal year 2016, there were 818 children served. That jumped to 988 in fiscal year 2017 and 1,400 in fiscal year 2018.

“We have seen an increase in the number of youth who are accessing mental health services across the county,” said Jessica Sexauer, director of the Local Behavioral Health Authority and Local Management Board. “Over the last three years, it’s increased countywide.”

That could be for a variety of reasons, though Sexauer believes the primary factor is that people experiencing mental health issues are more willing to seek help.

“We’ve come a long way in Worcester County with stigma reduction efforts,” she said.

Health officials also work to identify children who may experience mental health issues as young as possible through an early invention program.

“It’s important to address mental health in young children to promote wellness and also to provide things that can increase a child’s resilience — to give them tools so if they experience anxiety or exhibit signs of depression they can pull these tools from their tool box and know when to reach out for help,” Sexauer said.

Educators are doing what they can to assist. Barton said a grant from the Humphreys Foundation enabled her school to hire a consultant from Sheppard Pratt to work with educators each month.

“What she’s working on is about the children but it’s also about us as adults, to better build our capacity to know how to meet the needs of these children,” Barton said, adding that teachers hadn’t been trained to address the mental health issues they were now seeing in children. “That’s not our skillset. That’s not what we were trained for. We’re really trying to do a good job to work around that so that we are considered a trauma informed school and work around this and do what’s best for kids, so we come up with a sort of best practices.”

At Pocomoke Middle School, both the health department and Chesapeake Health Services now provide counseling to students. Counselors that initially visited the school once or twice a week are now there every day.

“Every year their numbers have increased,” Principal Matthew Record said.

He added, however, that the regular presence of the counselors had helped put students at ease.

“It’s a wonderful opportunity because the kids get the help they need and because these agencies are located within our school, the staff members are seen as people that help kids,” Record said.

In addition, the school has developed relationships with local community organizations to ensure that issues that might impact mental health, such as a lack of food or clothing, are addressed and don’t become a cause for anxiety for students. Record says that’s because there are so many outside factors impacting student wellbeing. As Barton noted, there are students dealing with incarcerated parents and others that don’t have a place to call home.

“These are outside the normal adolescent problems that everyone encounters,” Record said. “These are things that can be crippling to the family structure and ability to learn.”

He believes that monitoring the problem—collecting data, as the educational system is so inclined to do—is a key step in ensuring students’ needs are met.

“We’re quantifying the problem and addressing it,” he said. “In schools, what gets monitored gets done. Monitoring it helps us understand the complexities of the problem.”

From there, educators will do whatever they can to support their students.

“We address problems and make kids better,” Record said. “That’s what we do.”

About The Author: Charlene Sharpe

Alternative Text

Charlene Sharpe has been with The Dispatch since 2014. A graduate of Stephen Decatur High School and the University of Richmond, she spent seven years with the Delmarva Media Group before joining the team at The Dispatch.