School Mental Health UNSHACKLED

What if we knew what kids with emotional burdens needed?   What if we could pinpoint and address their needs without stigmatizing them?  What if our highest risk students looked forward to school and developed a little bounce in their step?  What if it were unbelievably simple?

 "We no longer chase after services for our high needs kiddos. 
Mental health is built school-wide and everyone belongs."

-- High School Principal

I was the district's Special Education Director for five years.  During that time, I worked closely with local agencies -- mental health providers, residential treatment centers, day treatment programs, developmental disability services, rehabilitation services, juvenile departments, health departments, doctors and our regional ESD.  The children's mental health system was changing and we met often to define what it would look like in Southern Oregon.  Every agency had a piece of the pie.  And every agency had a set of criteria that identified who they would or could serve and who they would not.  That is, except schools.

Public schools must educate everyone.  We are not allowed to pick and choose and too many students fall through the cracks, needing interventions but unserved by anyone but us.  Our underfunded mental health system required Medicaid eligibility and parent involvement.  Residential treatment excluded students below a certain IQ.  Rehabilitation services were only for 18 year olds.  Juvenile services required a student to commit a crime to get help.  Our ESD services were distant and expensive.  And on it went.  I whined a good deal about the gaps in service and the impossibility of helping kids who weren't eligible for services from others.

My transition to high school principal coincided with the development of a new program by SOASTC.  The program seemed pretty loosey-goosey to me.  A School-Community Advocate would be in our school for 10-20 hours a week, would not open charts for students or provide standard on-the-couch therapy but would focus on mental health as a school-wide concept.  I was skeptical but anxious for any level of service we could get.  The program as it unfolded and the results were stunning.

"Our Advocate brings students together and makes everyone feel important.  He has made a huge impact on our lives and has shown us the importance of helping others." 
-- High School Student

Schools are hectic places.  We are driven by bell schedules and every adult is overwhelmed with too many responsibilities.  We make a priority of interacting with students and being visible around campus, but we miss a lot.  Imagine a highly visible adult whose job is to identify issues unfolding -- the student eating alone, a brewing conflict, an otherwise happy student with a troubled look, a sad face.  Now imagine that adult has practiced a friendly (not authoritarian) stance in the cafeteria, chats with everyone, is personable, funny and full of energy.  Imagine that person's job is looking for ways to bring people together, to identify trouble spots and carry out solutions.   Imagine teachers coming to that adult to create interactive lessons addressing classroom problems like intolerance, cheating or inconsideration of others.  Imagine that adult creating informal groups that do fun things and creating small community service projects that require working together.  Imagine kids from across the school social spectrum working together and supporting each other.

"At North Valley, our Advocate has been a great inspiration in helping us develop into who we are."                                                           -- High School Student

When we intervene with kids, too often we focus on their deficiencies.  But every kid comes to us with strengths as well.  Through the School Community Team, we learned that a strengths focus is more effective than a deficiency one.  When our Advocate worked with a student, he helped the student identify needs and strengths and ways to approach problems.

For one who is as task-oriented as me, it was all too nebulous in the beginning.  Stuff needed to get done.  How would this undefined presence help? 

Traditional mental health services look something like this:
  • they involve a trainer giving tools to "the trained"
  • they try to "fix" broken kids
  • they are one-to-one and do not involve educators, partners or parents (except to elicit support)
  • they are separated from normal school life
 Psychiatric services are worse.  The New York Times reports that psychiatrists no longer offer "talk" at all and have become just prescription writers.  See Talk Doesn't Pay So Psychiatry Turns to Drug Therapy.

The School Community Team shook these assumptions and focused differently:
  • it is mutual, meaning advocates look for ways to work together with students, parents and educators.  the problems become experience used to help others with similar experiences.  the victims or bad kids become helpers and contributors to strengthening the school community.
  • it can be individual, group, classroom or whole school
  • it involves a wide array of people (non-profits, businesses, agencies) in a variety of ways
  • it works inside the normal school activities, not separate in an office
"Through direct contact with families and the teaching of parenting skills by program staff, two of our youngest students turned disruptive behavior around and are now making good progress in the classroom."                   -- Elementary Principal

This is a K-12 program, working with siblings across schools and providing tailored services to each school, depending on the school's culture, needs and wants.  While the professionals at SOASTC might identify the reasons for the SCT's effectiveness differently -- perhaps more clinically -- as an educator some revelations were glaring to me.

First and foremost, I learned that human emotional health is dependent upon feeling socially effective.  When students feel effective with their peers and adults, their brains change.  They are able to address personal problems and to change behaviors.

Second, I learned that sometimes simple things can cause complex problems.  Freshman anxiety about locker combinations can trigger problem behaviors and learning barriers.  By seeing the source of the anxiety, we can overcome it and prevent other problems.

Third, I learned that family self-perceptions and negative views of schools and authority can be compounded by our typical approaches and require a different way of interacting and supporting parents.

A colleague at those mental health meetings was subjected to my persistent whining over lack of services.  Later she heard me say, "I feel like we have all the service we need for our kids."  She was shocked.  If you're a school administrator or counselor, I'm guessing you would not make such a statement. 

If one-on-one therapy isn't cutting it for your students and the school environment seems a disconnect with too many students from troubled homes, isn't it time to try something else?  Contact SOASTC and find out more.  Maybe you can replicate this inexpensive and ridiculously effective approach in your school.