Mental health practitioners make major impact on students

The $3 million investment has now provided 136 mental health practitioners for the district

January 26, 2021 – Jesse’s troubles with school started his freshman year.  His home life in chaos, he missed 75 days of class one year, and was failing courses. “Anger was my main issue,” the Iroquois High School junior said. “And my living situation was terrible.  I was in a weird, bad mindset.”

Bolstered by his grandmother, Charlotte, who has since become his guardian and staunchest supporter, Jesse found another ally to help him overcome his challenges: Nick Asher, the school’s mental health practitioner.

“He let me vent and talk about whatever I was going through, and gave me some advice and analysis about what I talked about,” Jesse said.  “Therapy was half the reason I changed.  Ever since I met Mr. Asher, that’s when the changes started to happen, little by little.”

Examples like this are occurring throughout the district.  Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS) approved funding in February 2019 to ensure every JCPS student has access to a mental health counselor. Two years in, the $3 million investment is taking shape, and making an impact. The district now has 136 mental health practitioners, ensuring every middle, high school and Accelerated Improvement School at the elementary level has a dedicated counselor on staff, with all other elementary schools sharing a practitioner.

“The addition of our mental health practitioners allows each school to offer intensive counseling support to students,” said Dr. Alicia Averette, assistant superintendent of academic support programs and special populations. “Our school counselors and mental health practitioners work collaboratively to bring comprehensive counseling support to students and offer a wide variety of services at each level.”

“Our students, our scholars, they need accessibility to mental health counselors to learn these coping mechanisms, to have people to talk to,” said Sirlivia Mahin, the mental health practitioner at Indian Trail Elementary School.  “They go through a lot of issues and need their own support.  To be able to be there for the families as well is vital.  I think this role is definitely, definitely needed inside of schools.”

Mahin and Erica Woolridge, Indian Trail’s counselor, work together to address the needs of students and their families.

“When we went virtual, we sat down and talked about every last one of our kids who need the most support, and developed a plan on how we were checking in on each one of them,” Woolridge said.  “We look at their participation, look at their attendance, talk to their teachers. Most of my day is spent trying to find out where a certain kid is or why we haven’t heard from them, and then work with the school’s administration team to do what’s necessary to locate them,” including devising protocols for home visits.

“Sometimes we just need to lay eyes on a kid, and check – are they OK, are they safe?” Woolridge said.

Mahin and Woolridge say that after nearly a year in Non-Traditional Instruction (NTI), a global pandemic and near-constant news of civil unrest, support for mental health is needed now more than ever.

“People don’t think that kids get stressed,” Woolridge said.  “And they’re just little human beings – of course they get stressed.  Sometime they are such bigger feelers than adults are, and they’re just taking it all in.  We need to be making sure that we guard kids’ mental health.”

That can mean working with the school’s family resource coordinators to help students and their families find food, locate stable housing or assist with utilities. The teams can also provide individual therapy, case management, and help troubleshooting problems with classes or technology issues.

“It’s easy for us to forget how much is really going on for students,” said Asher, the mental health practitioner at Iroquois.  “When food is something you’re worried about, it’s kind of hard to think about anything else – graduation, or school, or your English classes.”

In one such case, Asher worked to connect a student and her parent to food resources, and the result was “like a complete 180 for her.  She was able to focus on school, and work, and was much more motivated for graduation.”

Asher said many of the students he’s talking to are experiencing depression and anxiety around school and classes, issues they’re facing at home and social interactions – or lack thereof. “There’s not a lot for them to do right now,” he said. “They say, ‘I miss being able to see my friends every day.’ Just going out, hanging out with friends – that’s been the hardest part of this for many of them.”

Asher has been able to provide strategies and resources for self-care, and help students build relationships with their teachers.  He’s also helping manage a student support website, which has links to resources and strategies for managing stress.  The website also allows students and families to put in referrals for themselves if they need help with mental health, classes or applying for college.

“We’re just trying to eliminate all barriers for students right now,” he said. “We’re trying to get them as close to help as we possibly can.”

That help has made a pivotal impact on students like Jesse, who said he went from making “straight Us and getting calls home every day to making all As and one B.”

“Now I want to better myself. I want to go to college,” he added.

Today, Jesse looks forward to Fridays, when he can discuss with Asher issues that have come up over the past week.

“It’s been a complete 180,” Charlotte said.  “His anger issues are gone, he’s full of life.”