Hays and San Marcos CISDs seek to create safe space for mental health

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Depression, anxiety, substance abuse: Nearly one in two children will develop a lifetime mental health disorder by the age of 14, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

That means in an average Hays or San Marcos CISD classroom size of 20 students, half of the students may be dealing with a mental health condition before they reach high school.

However a study done at the University of California, Los Angeles showed that approximately 80 percent of children who needed mental health care did not receive it.

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.”

Services provided at SMCISD

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.

Public Information Officer Andrew Hernandez said SMCISD has been very proactive in making sure its nine schools have adequate services to aid its students.

“Mental health is equivalent to school safety. Our students and staff have to feel safe to be physically and mentally able to learn and teach,” he said. “They go hand in hand to providing the best services. As a school district we have been very proactive. We are excited about the changes taking place.”

Last year SMCISD hired Pure Edge, a program that trains educators how to combat stress through wellness
exercises.

“We trained our staff on the Pure Edge program to learn how to breathe and practice mindfulness techniques for themselves yso they can later show students because our teachers have to be in the right state of mind to teach,” Hernandez said.

According to Hernandez, there are seven counselors at the high school, two at the alternative schools, three at each middle school and one at each elementary school.

The school district partners with Texas State University master’s program students in counseling and social  work to have interns at each school. In addition SMCISD is also working to provide mental health services for its teachers as well.

“We are hiring a district emotional administrator to oversee all these programs and to also be an open door for faculty and staff as well,” Hernandez said. “We also want to partner with as many community partners to help relieve the stress teachers face.”

Services provided at HCISD

HCISD Director of Counseling Charlotte Winkleman said that counselors staffed at the school are there for  more than just academics but for mental health services as well.

Each elementary school has a school counselor except for Elm Grove, which has two. Camino Real, Hemphill and Tom Green elementaries have Communities In Schools or CISs—social workers who work with students to ensure success in and out of the classroom.

Every middle school has two counselors, and Chapa, McCormick, Simon and Wallas have a CIS on each campus. At the high schools, Hays has six counselors and two CISs; Lehman has five counselors and two CISs; Live Oak Academy has one counselor, and Impact has one counselor, one CIS and an intern.

“We have school nurses because we recognize that physical health is essential to learning, and the same goes for mental health. It’s really hard to learn if you’re anxious, depressed or being bullied.”
— Jon Lasser, an expert in school psychology and associate dean for Research and Sponsored Programs at Texas State University

“We want to help parents and their children. The first step is contact the school. The [school]can tell them who their counselor is, and that is the best place to start,” Winkleman said. “The majority of our counselors do classroom guidance and small groups. There may be a time when students need individual assistance, and that  is when we refer them to a social worker or [private]counselor.”

In addition to the services provided on campus, HCISD also partners with the Greater San Marcos Youth Council to work with students at the high schools with attendance issues. It is also a part of Texas State’s program to master’s students in counseling and social work as interns to work as social workers Lehman and Hays.

According to Tonja Batt, Hays County Mobile Crisis Outreach team lead supervisor, both school districts work with The Scheib Center—a nonprofit that provides mental health and mental disability services to residents in the San Marcos and Hays County area—to conduct training seminars on mental health awareness and mental health first aid.

“Having support there in every aspect of children’s life is critical. So in the school place they have the support from counselors, but we’re community-based. Transportation may be a barrier or schools may not be able to get a hold of the parents, so they can’t get the child to the clinic,” Batt said. “Being able to have something that is community-based at the site where the student is having a crisis is very important.”

Mental Health intervention

While Lasser said many schools are doing things right when it comes to mental health, he said more emphasis needs to be put on prevention when it comes to addressing mental health.

“We’re not as good at preventing problems as we are responding to them. Things like social and emotional well-being, building these competencies in kids, to problem solve, to take in the perspective of others and learn self-awareness is essential,” Lasser said. “Sadly when we focus exclusively on the attainment of academic goals we are shortchanging students who also need to develop social skills and emotional competencies.”

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.

According to Hernandez and Winkleman, all the counselors and teachers are trained in suicide prevention and to notice the signs of when a student may need help.  Each district also has a student bullying and personal crisis app that students can use to report issues they are having in school to instigate an immediate investigation.

“We are very wise to add safety concerns to the help line because students are able to track things that are happening online that administrators may not see,” Winkleman said “The teachers also see the kids every day and are good at seeing if any problems are occurring.”

In Batt’s experience, suicidal ideation and psychosis are the issues her team faces most often. On a national level, The National Institute of Mental Illness found that suicide was the third leading cause of death in adolescent children. This is one of the many reasons why Batt advocates for parents and teachers to learn the signs of mental illnesses. She added that awareness is important because many times when students are exhibiting  mental health issues, parents and educators mistake the symptoms for behavioral problems.

“A teacher or a counselor from the school may call the hotline and say we have a kid here who is having suicidal thoughts, so is the child safe in that moment at the school? Yes. Is he safe when goes home? Not necessarily,” Batt said. “That is where our partnership with [Hays and San Marcos CISD] works out really well because we are community-based. We will travel to the school, assess the child and make sure they receive the appropriate treatment.”

Batt also said open dialogue and education is key to make sure schools have appropriate mental health
services.

“I think people as far as school officials are much more open to having conversations and training about mental health issues,” she said. “It is important to know that mental health can be treated. Recovery is definitely possible for people with mental health disorders. And if we talked more about what recovery looked like it wouldn’t be so scary, and there would be less of a stigma.”

Lasser said what parents should expect from schools in terms of mental health depends on what people consider as the function of a school.

“If we see schools as primarily as an institution that advances academic goals and educational attainments then one could say mental health does not have a role in schools,” he said. “However if you think more broadly about what a school is, a school is a social center. We have school nurses because we recognize that physical health is essential to learning, and the same goes for mental health. It’s really hard to learn if you’re anxious, depressed or being bullied.”

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COMMENT
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Starlight Williams
Starlight Williams joined Community Impact Newspaper July 2017 after graduating Loyola University New Orleans. She spent her time covering city government, education and business news in the Buda and Kyle area. Starlight moved on from Community Impact July 2018.
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