Long before the added mental stress of the coronavirus pandemic set in, awareness of mental health disorders in children and adolescents had increasingly become an important topic for educators.
In fact, several statistics pointed to the adolescent years as an important time for diagnosis and treatment of mental illness. For example, the Youth Risk Behavior Survey conducted in Marathon County schools in 2019 revealed the following disturbing numbers for our local high school students:
- 26% reported having prolonged, disruptive sadness and
- 42% experienced significant problems with anxiety in the last 12 months.
What’s more, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI):
- 17% of youth ages 6–17 years of age experience a mental health disorder and
- 50% of all lifetime mental illness begins by age 14 (and 75% by age 24).
Yet given these disturbing trends in our youth, only 50.6% of U.S. youth with a mental health disorder receive treatment (National Survey of Children’s Health, 2016).
With the average delay between the onset of mental illness symptoms and treatment at 11 years — and considering the additional stressors the current COVID-19 crisis is placing on our adolescents — the time to address the mental health and well-being of our youth has never been more critical.
Schools have employed school counselors, school psychologists, school nurses, and in some circumstances school social workers for decades; however, it’s important to note that the role of these pupil service professionals has evolved over time to more directly address students’ mental health–related challenges in school. Nowadays, there is a greater emphasis on ensuring a coordinated effort within the school to provide a multi-level system of supports that provides services, practices, and resources to every learner — not just to those students with disabilities and Individual Education Programs (IEPs). Schools throughout Marathon County have been working at the building, district, and county levels to respond to the mental health needs presented by students regardless of their age or disability status.
This expanded framework for providing professional supports within the schools goes beyond the traditional mission of schools, which had been centered around learning and achievement, to also include the enhancement of behavioral, social, and emotional skills shown to be critical for students to reach success beyond high school. Schools are now providing instruction in social-emotional learning to help students to better understand and recognize their own emotions. Students are taught self-regulation strategies to help them become more independent in controlling their own emotions and impulses and to improve their ability to problem-solve their way through conflicts. Schools are also screening students at the elementary, middle, and high school levels to identify students who may be at risk for a mental health disorder and to then help connect them to the appropriate intervention.
Screening results also allow educators to monitor the overall health of their school by analyzing how many students are scoring within the average range. It is important to monitor trends over time to assess the overall impact of the prevention and intervention efforts in place. Teachers and other school staff also receive training on how to recognize signs and symptoms of a mental health problem, as well as how to respond in various scenarios.
Students who are experiencing mild to significant mental health concerns have access to a school counselor or school psychologist to support them with school-related or personal challenges. Often times, teams are coming together to develop plans to support students throughout their day. Students with disabilities may also receive specialized instruction and supports from their special education teacher that help them make gains on social or emotional goals outlined in their IEP.
The Marathon County School-Based Counseling Consortium (MCS-BCC) is comprised of representatives from community-based counseling agencies, as well as local school districts. The consortium was established with the goal of placing mental health therapists in all 57 public schools in Marathon County. This goal was accomplished in March 2018. Services are consistent with what students would receive in an outpatient setting within the community, and are billed through insurance plans. Bringing therapists into the school has eliminated barriers to treatment such as transportation, lost educational time when students are traveling to and from appointments, and lost work time for parents who previously had to take time off of work to transport their child. It is an extraordinary example of multiple school districts and mental health agencies collaborating to help address the mental health needs of youth within Marathon County. (Learn more about the consortium’s successes in Aaron Ruff & Hannah Schommer’s November 2019 article “School-Based Mental Health Counseling Is Working in Marathon County.”)
Since the Governor’s Safer at Home order was issued, consortium schools have been working hard with the therapists to provide stability and connection to mental health services countywide. While the original grant was not written with a pandemic in mind, the school-based counselors have been setting up virtual office hours and connecting students and families to much-needed resources, such as scheduling TeleHealth appointments via video chat or phone call using HIPAA-compliant TeleHealth tools like Zoom.
One of the challenges of TeleHealth is the lack of reliable wi-fi in rural areas. Even when wi-fi is available, it is often not sufficiently powerful to support the therapy sessions. Within districts, school counselors and school psychologists are attempting to bridge the gap via phone calls and other remote supports so students can connect with them when needed.
So, during this trying time, how can parents and teachers support the mental health of our children and youth?
- Learn about warning signs of mental health concerns that family and teachers can watch for,
- Get tips for fostering children’s mental health, and
- Find a list of helpful books, websites, and other community resources on the topic of mental health, such as United Way 211’s mental health informational packet.
Many may disagree as to whether schools should be the “de facto” mental health system for students. However, educators are in a unique position to foster positive social-emotional growth, as well as to identify signs and symptoms of emerging mental health-related concerns.
Mental health disorders are not a student, teacher, school, or even district problem — statistics have shown us that mental health issues affect our communities, county, state, and country. It will take a village to continue to invest in our youth to allow them to reach their fullest potential.
Marathon County is dedicated to the mental health of all its students.
We will get through this difficult time — TOGETHER.
Kelly Kapitz, PhD
Director | Marathon County Special Education Department
Dr. Kelly Kapitz has been involved in rural education for over 30 years. She began her career as a school psychologist and later entered administration as a Director of Special Education and Pupil Services for the Marathon County Special Education Department. She received her PhD in Education Leadership and Policy Analysis from the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Her dissertation and particular area of interest is transition services to students with disabilities. She has served on several state and local taskforces related to providing high-quality educational services to rural students. Dr. Kapitz serves on the Board of Directors for the Wisconsin Council of Administrators of Special Services. She and her husband have three children and enjoy tending their apple orchard and traveling. Email Dr. Kelly Kapitz.
Assistant Director | Marathon County Special Education
Kristin Jacobson has a Master of Science in School Psychology (2004) and an Educational Specialist degree in School Psychology (2006). Her Wisconsin certification includes (5080) Director of Special Education & Pupil Services, and (7062) School Psychologist. Kristin started her career as a school psychologist for Marathon County Special Education in 2005 and, in 2016, became Assistant Director of Special Education. Email Kristin Jacobson.
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