As kids’ mental health issues increase, local school districts boost response

Seaman school district prepared to intervene in mental health crises

Some Seaman Unified School District 345 staff have spent the past few months analyzing strategies for supporting students with serious mental health concerns.

 

A group of two dozen elementary- and secondary-level teachers, administrators, counselors, social workers and school psychologists met Nov. 30 at the district offices to discuss drafts of a suicide prevention and intervention plan that would become uniform across the district.

Dedra Raines, the district’s director of special services, said district students took a Kansas Communities That Care Survey that showed higher rates of depression and suicidality. Survey data from 2016 showed 29.05 percent of Shawnee County students who took the survey said that in the past 12 months, they had felt so sad or hopeless almost every day for two weeks or more in a row that they stopped doing some usual activities. Comparatively, 25.41 percent of students statewide who took the survey indicated the same.

“Our children have more concerns with depression and suicide, so now we’re looking at what strategies do we have in place, what interventions do we have, to meet those needs of those students that aren’t getting the needs met within their general education classroom,” Raines said.

Nancy Crago, director of psychosocial rehabilitation at Topeka’s Family Service & Guidance Center, said children now are exposed to more traumas than they were previously, which means they come to school with a set of mental health issues that schools haven’t dealt with before.

“Schools all over the country are reporting that they’re experiencing mental health issues in their students like they’ve never seen before,” she said.

It is critical, she said, that schools focus on mental health.

“Sometimes, they’re the first people that discover that a child’s depressed or that a child’s having mental health issues,” Crago said.

Evidence-based practices

Seaman received a grant two years ago through which the Kansas State Department of Education’s Technical Assistance System Network is working to help it implement a Multi-Tiered System of Supports, or MTSS, an evidence-based framework for structuring academic, behavioral and social-emotional supports meant to ensure the success of every student.

Christina Mann, a state trainer with TASN’s Kansas MTSS Project, led the group of Seaman staff as they worked in small groups to discuss the suicide prevention and intervention plan, then shared feedback.

Raines said each of the district’s schools already had individual plans in place similar to the one being prepared by the group. The plan is implemented when any district employee reports hearing a student say something that prompts a concern for his or her well-being.

That “behavior of concern” should be immediately reported to an administrator, social worker, counselor or psychologist, who then interviews the student, asking enough questions — such as whether the student is considering suicide and has the means to do so — to determine a level of risk for suicidality. If a student is hostile or noncompliant, the person conducting the interview should assume they are at a moderate or high risk of suicidality, according to the draft protocol.

The intervention plan then guides staff through contacting a parent or guardian, providing resources and following up to ensure the student is receiving outside support, Raines said.

A concern shared by a middle-school counselor during the meeting was tied to whether assessing a student’s risk of suicidality after an interview could come with liability. Mann reminded the group that records tied to the risk-level assessment were separate from the student’s health emergency.

“I would hate for us to think that in an emergent situation, we’re being fearful about being able to communicate what we’re seeing,” Mann said. “We don’t diagnose. This is not a formal assessment. This is, based on an interview, we have real concern.”

Mann, a licensed clinical social worker, said it’s encouraging educators are focusing on children’s social-emotional development so they can more easily implement a mental health perspective.

As the need for mental health intervention grows, Raines said, schools have to be more intentional in their response and have strategies and resources in place. The Seaman district now screens students three times each year to assess their needs, she said.

Psychosocial groups

The Family Service & Guidance Center has provided a psychosocial group program for students in Topeka USD 501 for about 30 years, according to Crago. In that time, it has grown from a single group at Capital City School to groups in several schools that serve about 150 kids.

“We worked with 501 to identify the schools of greatest need, and that’s where we go,” she said.

The groups’ objective is to address the social skills that cause students problems or interfere with their ability to function in school, Crago said. About eight students at a time cycle through a psychosocial group with two leaders for about an hour and a half each day to work on social skills, then return to class.

Students in the groups have a variety of diagnoses that range from depression and anxiety to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and oppositional defiant disorder, Crago said. While FSGC staff can serve any diagnosis, they focus on kids who are having difficulty functioning in school because of it.

FSGC staff who run the groups are based in the schools, and their groups and offices are there, she said. They are seen as part of the school support team, which helps them develop relationships with teachers and students.

Crago is the community representative on Topeka USD 501’s mental health team, which includes teachers, social workers, psychologists and administrators and works to create an overall strategic plan for schools’ mental health needs. USD 501 is in the process of training all its personnel in a trauma model.

“What we believe is that many of the children who are having difficulty in school have suffered some kind of trauma in their world, and those children need to be treated differently than normal behavior problems,” Crago said, adding the district “has done a wonderful job” of introducing its trauma-model training.

Beyond the psychosocial groups, FSGC also has case managers and attendant care providers that go out to every school in the district.

“It’s really important for the schools and the mental health centers to have a good connection so that we can get those kids into service when they need it,” Crago said.

Contact reporter Samantha Foster at (785) 295-1186 or @samfoster_ks on Twitter.

RELATED LINKS

Read more about the Capital-Journal special section, State of Health Care in Kansas, at http://cjonline.com/state-health-care-kansas.

See the 24-page Capital-Journal digital magazine of the special section here.

 

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