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As student mental health remains a top priority, an onsite team of licensed therapists has helped a school support students and avoid crises.

How a higher-ed partnership transformed student mental health services at our school

As students struggle with mounting stress and anxiety, an onsite team of licensed therapists has helped one middle school support struggling students and avoid crises

It’s a given that students will experience stress as they move through school. Learning new concepts, completing assignments and taking tests, and navigating social experiences all contribute to normal stress. But today, our students are struggling with much, much more. And too much stress has dangerous implications for student mental health and well-being.

Anxieties related to lockdowns, school violence, COVID, and family issues have been shown to increase students’ stress levels and can leave them in such a state that they are unable to learn.

In my role as the principal of Salt Lake Center for Science Education-Bryant Middle School in Salt Lake City, I have witnessed first-hand the impact that elevated stress levels have had on our students’ well-being.

As a staff, my colleagues and I have observed and discussed a marked decrease in students’ interpersonal skills, including how they get along with each other and with their teachers. We’ve also noticed a big reduction in how students talk to and get along with other people. This has a big social-emotional impact on them, and we’ve watched our students remain in a frustrated state much of the time.

Meeting student mental health needs

When you work with kids in a school setting, you often know when a student is struggling. Every child struggles in one way or another. But there are some who are struggling to the point where learning isn’t happening as it should.

For nearly five years, we’ve been lucky to partner with the U-TTEC Lab, a contemporary research lab in the University of Utah’s Department of Educational Psychology. The lab works closely with several schools in Utah to provide direct and indirect mental health supports and infrastructure.

This partnership brings trainee therapists or trainee clinicians, working under the supervision of licensed providers, directly to our school. We call the collaboration between the onsite clinicians, school guidance counselors, and administration our “well-being team,” and the clinicians provide 20 hours a week of in-person support.

We operate on a three-tiered mental health and well-being system. On the first tier, our well-being team consults with us on what we’re doing school-wide to support students. Team members help us watch for warning signs and recognize when students have needs. The second tier is group therapy, with parental permission and involvement. The third tier is individual therapy, also requiring parental permission.

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Having clinicians in the building for consultations or screenings (opted into by parents) is critical. Through universal screening, which our well-being team does three times a year, we assess all students and ask them how they’re doing. Do they like to come to school? Is there anything that’s bothering them? Do they enjoy studying? What are they good at and where do they excel?

Once we have the results from the screener, we use those results to triage who is at a high risk, who is at moderate risk, and who is not at risk. We can identify students who may need immediate support, like one-on-one therapy or an intervention in the case of a potential mental health crisis. We also have students who might not have such acute needs but who may be experiencing some risk, and we want to intervene early.

Funding our partnership

It’s hard to address the mental health needs of students. Most schools don’t have a line item in their budget that pays for onsite counseling or other mental health resources.

In the past decade, we have seen some positive changes in Utah with school districts having more social workers in schools. Our U-TTEC Lab partnership is critical because it helps support the work of our school’s social worker. 

We have funded our work with the U-TTEC Lab in various ways over the years. In the first year of the partnership, we were able to fund it with various discretionary funds. Then, the U-TTEC Lab was kind enough to include us in a grant application to Cambia Health Foundation, and that paid for two more years of the program.

COVID has shined a spotlight on the student mental health crisis, and it has also brought additional money. For this coming school year, we should be able to use ESSER money to fund our partnership. After that, it will be up to me and my team, in collaboration with the U-TTEC Lab, to find ways of continuing to support the program.

During our partnership, we’ve worked extensively with Chathuri Illapperuma-Wood, PhD, NCSP, BCBA, LBA, research and programs coordinator at the U-TTEC Lab and project implementation coordinator for the Utah School Mental Health Collaborative (U-SMHC). The Collaborative, directed by Dr. Aaron Fischer, PhD, BCBA, LP. LBA, is a state-wide project advancing and aligning school mental health infrastructure by providing school districts across Utah the technical assistance and training to develop effective mental health systems in their schools.

Our collaboration has helped emphasize just how critical student mental health needs are.

“One benefit that emerged from the pandemic is that people are now more willing to talk about and acknowledge mental health difficulties than prior to the pandemic,” Chathuri told me recently. “Stress, trauma, poverty, and lack of access to resources such as healthcare, food, and housing—all of those things play a role in student mental health, and the pandemic shifted all of that, especially for those marginalized communities. You can take it a step further and talk about caregiver and educator well-being, too, because our adults have to be healthy not only physically, but also mentally to be able to support children.”

Key outcomes

I can say, without a doubt, that our school’s culture is better as a result of this partnership. It just feels better in classrooms, in the hallways, and at lunch. And since we implemented a solid system of school-wide screening and intervention for at-risk students, we have seen a 40-percent drop in suspension rates.

Having the well-being team in our school has helped reduce the stigma around mental health struggles. It’s helped students realize they have a place to go when they need help. It’s helped us to avoid crises as a school community.

The resources and targeted assistance we’re able to offer now have changed dramatically. Before the partnership, when we encountered a student who was struggling, we talked to the parents or caregivers about the community resources available, gave them a handout, and that was where our ability to help ended. That’s an incredibly hard position to be in–to have a student who is struggling in a school system that’s working really hard but is just not equipped to meet that level of need. It’s hard to see the hurt and the fear in parents’ eyes. Now, we’re able to connect that student and their family to our well-being team, and we can do so much more. It’s a game changer. It’s just so much better for kids.

Looking ahead

As we look to the future, we are considering new options to complement our work with the U-TTEC Lab. One goal is to explore private platforms, such as MyConcern, that allow K–12 teams to record their concerns about students, upload supporting evidence, refer students to social and health services, and do monitoring/follow-up.

Wherever your school or district is in its efforts to support student mental health and well-being, keep moving forward. Focus on addressing the needs you’ve identified and bring in the tools and people necessary for support. Celebrate your successes and recognize that there will be bumps in the road. Building-level leaders should speak to their district colleagues about their work. Make sure they know about your successes.

As a profession, we must address mental well-being for students to feel safe and ready to learn. If there are students in crisis, their academic progress is not going to happen. If we don’t make students’ mental health a priority, then we won’t succeed in fulfilling our main mission, which is ensuring academic success. Student mental health is a variable that simply can’t be ignored.

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