With mental health-related calls to Austin ISD police increasing each year and the workload of school counselors becoming more burdensome, AISD has opened 40 school mental health centers and added about 100 nondistrict mental health specialists since the start of 2011.

Mental health centers are designated rooms on district campuses where licensed mental health professionals, such as psychiatrists or therapists, meet with students, families and staff to work through mental health barriers that could be affecting the student.

Services at the centers are free to students and parents, and staff at the centers work in conjunction with traditional school counselors, parent support specialists, school nurses and other school employees, said Twyla Williams, AISD administrative supervisor of counseling and crisis.

“[The centers] create a community of care in our campuses where we link together,” she said. “At the end of the day we all have that same goal: We are all wanting that student to be successful and to heal that hurt [they have].”

Established in 2011 as a pilot program at South Austin’s Crockett High School, mental health centers had been opened at 18 campuses in Austin ISD by the beginning of the 2017-18 school year.

Using funding from a $4.5 million Victims of Crime Act grant awarded to the district last fall, AISD expanded the program to 22 elementary schools this February, said Tracy Spinner, AISD assistant director of comprehensive health services.

The elementary schools selected feed into Akins High School in South Austin, Lanier High School and LBJ Early College High School. According to a 2012 study by Dell Children’s Medical Center, the schools are located in ZIP codes with higher crime rates, language challenges and higher levels of child maltreatment.

“By providing mental health services on campus, we are able to identify, support, and efficiently provide clinical treatment for our students experiencing a variety of mental health issues,” Spinner said.

Common mental health issues include clinical anxiety; depression; and stress related to family relationships, schoolwork or trauma, said Dr. Elizabeth Minne, director of South Austin-based Vida Clinic, which staffs and coordinates 25 of the district’s mental health centers. Austin-based Integral Care, a counseling and mental health service, operates the other centers.

Students who have experienced psychological maltreatment and other emotional problems often struggle at school behaviorally because of their psychological distress, Minne said.  The centers also help students with developmental disabilities and those with physical or medical ailments that could create barriers in school, she said.

Goals and background

Minne said the goal of the program is to have licensed therapists provide deeper, more individualized care than what would be offered through a traditional school counselor. She said therapists look as student behavior empathically instead of relying on punitive tactics, such as suspensions, which bar students from being in the classroom and learning.

Minne began working with AISD in 2011 by helping start the pilot program at Crockett High School, now the district’s busiest mental health center.

In the months since expanding the program to elementary schools in February, she said the new mental health centers have served over 1,400 individuals, working with students, parents and teachers.

“Our goal is not only to do therapy with kids and to help them individually, but to really create a whole climatic shift on our campuses,” Minne said. “For every student that we serve we also work with the adults in their lives.”

Williams said mental health needs are more noticeable in high school students, but once the program’s success was apparent the district wanted to be able to address needs in lower grades.

“A big part of moving the program to elementary is because younger students are sometimes not as articulate as the older students and not able to express what bothers them,” she said. “We can catch needs earlier and support families as they move through the grade levels.”

Having centers on campus allows for better coordination of services, Williams said. It also allows students to take advantage of services during the school day, eliminating potential scheduling or transportation conflicts that could be created if centers were off-site.

School counselors are still the first line of defense in helping identify what may be bothering a student, but Williams said once it is determined a student needs specified attention, he or she could be referred to a center.

As outside entities, therapists at the centers require permission from a student’s guardian before meeting a student. Minne said that guardians are typically excited about the opportunity once they learn about it.

Program results

Based on data collected since 2011, Minne said that students who have spent a year using mental health center services show a significant decrease in anxiety and depression symptoms as well as increases in positive relationships with their peers.

Students in the program have increased graduation rates, improved academic achievement, and a lowered rate of drop-outs and suspensions, Williams said.

At the high school level, Minne said students show lower levels of substance abuse related issues, such as taking medication or other drugs to deal with stress and anxiety, while in the program.

“If they are working through emotions and concerns getting resolved then there’s less of a need to numb the pain through other means,” she said. “If their mental health improves the substance abuse decreases.”

With centers that have been open for multiple years, like at Crockett High School, students and staff have embraced the concept of addressing mental health in order to make the entire campus healthy, Minne said. Students have taken ownership of the space to turn it into a safe environment for all at the school, she said.

Although there is a monetary cost in operating the centers, Williams said the centers actually save the district money over time by catching potential conflicts or issues before they could become more expensive.

“The improvements in attendance, academic outcomes and the fact we are helping kids’ lives, putting a dollar amount on that is impossible,” Minne said. “We started seeing reductions in other district costs pretty quickly, which drove the program to expand.”

Future expansion

Edna Butts, the district’s director of intergovernmental relations and policy oversight, said mental health has been a legislative priority for the district in previous legislative sessions and will continue to be during the upcoming 2019 session.

“[Mental health] is a priority,” she said at an AISD board of trustees meeting June 11. “We’ve take, Tracy Spinner and Dr. Elizabeth Minne to the Capital to tell [legislators] what we’re doing and to ask that funding be provided. That funding that currently goes to other agencies be directed to school districts because of the wonderful work that we’re going and the results that we’re seeing.”

The district has proposed expanding mental health centers to an additional 30 campuses in the 2019-20 school year, according to testimony Spinner gave to the House Committee on Public Health on May 17.

Minne said she hopes mental health centers will expand to all AISD schools in the future.

“Mental health does not discriminate. It’s present at all of our campuses regardless of money or demographics,” she said. “I think any estimation of the need [for mental health services] is an underestimation. We have emotions, and that’s part of being human.”