Mental health services are a priority for local districts

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More than 33,000 students in New Braunfels and Comal ISD benefit from district-community relationships for mental health services.

Among the needs, the two districts treat students with depression, anxiety, substance abuse issues and suicidal thoughts. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, nearly 1 in 2 children develop a mental disorder by the age of 14.

While a study from the University of California, Los Angeles shows that approximately 80 percent of children who needed mental health care did not receive it, officials at CISD and NBISD said getting students the help they need is a priority. Upgrades have been made to provide more counselors and train teachers, staff members and bus drivers to watch for signs of mental health issues.

“The needs absolutely run the gamut,” said NBISD Health Services Coordinator Karen Schwind, who has 23 years of experience working with students. “When a student cries out in crisis, we work to provide the resources to help.”

Tiffany Newkirk, who has been with CISD for six years and served NBISD before that, is now counseling coordinator for CISD. Newkirk said the district has added counselors recently to help serve the district’s 18 elementary schools, seven middle schools and four high schools.

“We worked very hard to gather data, review the campus needs and study what we saw,” Newkirk said. “We saw students with needs 24 hours a day. The escape isn’t there.”

Counseling is available and free

NBISD and CISD work with several community, county and state agencies to secure resources and funding for counseling assessments and services for their students. Special services needed outside the school district can be costly, but the district may still pay for the help through partnerships, grant funding and foundations.

According to Jon Lasser, an expert in school psychology and associate dean for Research and Sponsored Programs at Texas State University, there are a number of reasons children do not get the care they need.

“Maybe it is too expensive; maybe it is too hard for parents who are working two jobs to find time to take their kids to counseling; and that is why school-based resources are so important,” Lasser said. “It’s where the kids are. When it’s provided in public schools, there are no charges for the

services, and there should be no issues with transportation, cost or time.”

Texas school districts provide free services in the form of school counselors, psychologists and social workers to help improve a student’s mental, emotional and social health.

NBISD steps up with programs

Rebecca Villarreal, director of communications for NBISD and its 9,100 students, said New Braunfels High School has six counselors for 1,802 students; three counselors for 723 students for its Ninth Grade Center; one counselor for 40-80 students at the alternative high school; two counselors and a new assistant principal who was a former counselor and will serve as a crisis counselor for 1,150 students at New Braunfels Middle School; two counselors for 920 students at Oak Run Middle School; and one counselor for each of nine elementary schools, which range from 300 to 788 students. Veramendi Elementary School, with 788 students, added an assistant principal this year.

The district also has a behavior specialist at its Lone Star Early Childhood Center, two other behavior specialists and four social-worker type employees that help in the district.

Schwind said grants available through Bluebonnet Trails Community Services help train teachers, to pick up on signs a student needs help.

“There are signs,” Schwind said, “like lower grades, a stomachache, they change their behavior. We have to watch for it. And we are seeing it at a younger age now.”

The district will soon have an anonymous reporting option for issues on the district’s website. A mobile crisis outreach team will include counselors, nurses and other mental health professionals who are ready to engage at any time for a student in need.

“We have programs to educate our students and staff about mental health risks and that help is available,” Schwind said.

NBISD also has licensed specialists in school psychology to address specific areas of need in its special education program, according to Martha Moke, NBISD executive director of special education.

“The special education program also has two board-certified behavior analysts who address behavioral concerns of our special education students by taking the lead in conducting functional behavioral analysis as part of their evaluation,” Moke said in an email.

Moke went on to say the district contracts with clinical neuropsychologists, psychologists and other health professionals to help meet the needs of all students.

CISD is adding counselors

Continued growth has brought the need for more counselors at CISD, which has 24,042 students. Newkirk said each of the district’s 18 elementary schools have a counselor and receive help from a Communities in Schools case manager where needed. The district’s seven middle schools have two counselors each; Memorial Early College High School has 1 counselor for nearly 400 students; six counselors each at Canyon High School and Smithson High School, which have 2,800 students each; and four counselors plus a social counselor for the 1,000 students at Canyon Lake High School. The district also receives help through its Keystone Program where they partner with local therapists.

“We give them students they can see right on campus,” Newkirk said.

While the outside services are billed when insurance is available, students without insurance are still provided services with the costs being paid for by the district.

Newkirk said she believes the needs of students have changed over the last few years.

“I hate to harp on social media, but it is a huge piece for kids’ lives today,” she said. “And they deal with everything on there: academic and emotional struggles, developing meaningful friendships,” Newkirk said.

Newkirk said suicide is the No. 2 cause of death in adolescents, a number not unnoticed by the local districts.

“Suicide prevention has been around a long time, but we’ve seen the numbers grow,” Newkirk said. “We have programs and training that can really help our students and staff. We want everybody to be on the same as we work on getting students the help they need.”

Partners in the community

The two local districts have several partners they rely on with expertise and resources to help their students. The McKenna Foundation, Communities in Schools, Crisis Center of Comal County, Hill Country Community Mental Health, and the Mental Advocacy Partners – New Braunfels are just a few resources involved with the district.

“We have been really fortunate to be part of the work done at our local districts,” said River City Advocacy Executive Director Adam Robinson. “A lot has changed and the kids need an outlet to talk about their issues. The schools are one of the most important partnerships we have.”

Robinson said social media has many children comparing themselves to others.

“There can be so much negativity, without really realizing it,” Robinson said. “Our counselors work with the schools to talk about the signs, to tell them help is available. We have to be about education and prevention.”

Helping is the goal

The Texas Department of State Health Services and the Texas Education Agency are required to provide information to schools and the public about early mental health intervention, mental health promotion, substance abuse prevention and intervention, and suicide prevention.

Robinson said River City Advocacy is one of many partners proud to help the schools, something districts would not be able to accomplish on their own, according to Newkirk. The reward, she said, comes with the many success stories of helping students.

“People are drawn to this line of work, and it often can go unrecognized,” Newkirk said. “But when you stand in the hallway as a counselor and a student comes closer to say, ‘Hello,’ you know you’ve made a difference. And that’s very rewarding.”

More resources and contact information are available at
www.communityimpact.com.

Starlight Williams contributed to this report.

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Joe Warner
Joe Warner is managing editor of the nine Austin-Central Texas editions of Community Impact Newspaper. He previously served as senior editor of the flagship Round Rock, Pflugerville and Hutto newspaper. He came to Central Texas from Metro Detroit, where he was editor and general manager of several daily and weekly publications. He is the former president of the Michigan Press Association and was on the MPA board of directors for nine years.
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