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Why mental health resources are needed in Hampton Roads schools

covid kids mental health
Posted at 4:33 PM, Nov 03, 2021
and last updated 2021-11-04 18:35:35-04

HAMPTON ROADS, Va. – As thousands of students headed back into classrooms this year, many were struggling with mental health issues.

News 3 continues to investigate this and reached out to area school districts to inquire what programs are in place to help the students.

We found that different districts have different ways of handling mental health issues and different needs.

Experts say kids are under stress, and it is impacting certain children more than others.

On September 20, a student opened fire inside of Heritage High School in Newport News. It was a chaotic situation and terrifying for the staff and students.

Luckily, no one was killed, but it was a mentally taxing day for all those involved. Weeks later, Newport News Public Schools leaders said the kids have access to student support specialists, social workers and mental health therapists to help with any trauma they endured during the incident.

This was an extreme situation, but since the start of the pandemic, children across the region have been under added strain, according to experts.

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused them to learn virtually, have less interaction with peers and have less uncertainty about the future.

The number of children reaching out for help has increased.

Calls to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline increase by 300% statewide in 2021 for kids between the ages of 13-17 years old from January to September compared to 2020 and those numbers up from the year prior, according to leaders with the Psychiatric Rehabilitation Services.

“When adults are feeling stressed and overwhelmed and trapped, children also feel what their caregivers are putting out there,” said Laura Mayer, the Psychiatric Rehabilitation Services Program Director. The nonprofit works with the government to provide mental health resources.

Providing more mental health resources to kids was the goal of the General Assembly in recent months. This past July, they made changes to increase funding to districts across the state by $50 million, which is earmarked to provide more resources for kids.

Each district is required to have at least three specialized student support positions per 1,000 students. Those are positions like social workers, psychologists, nurses or other licensed positions.

Virginia State Sen. Jennifer McClellan from District 9 in the Richmond area led these efforts to change the law.

“Some of our poor localities with higher numbers of at-risk students, some that don't have a very strong tax base and have a harder time meeting all the needs of our students, so we're going to make sure every student gets what they need,” said McClellan. “The state really needs to step in and help fill in those gaps.”

McClellan said COVID has put an added strain on the need for more resources.

“Before COVID, we already knew we didn't have enough mental health professionals and social workers and counselors in the schools, and we saw that with a number of kids with mental health issues or disabilities being pushed into the discipline system. COVID has made that worse,” said McClellan.

News 3 Investigates reached out to several local school districts and found that each one gave varying answers when we inquired about mental health resources for students.

They have different programs, different amounts of staff and different needs.

Dr. Michele Mitchell is the executive director for the Department of Student Advancement in Newport News and said some changes came in their district when they got a new superintendent in 2018, but she said it was something they had been working on for some time. She said when the new superintendent arrived, discussions started to formulate into action.

“We had the conversation that we needed to provide another level of support for our students and families,” said Mitchell.

She said those conversations turned into the district putting more money toward resources for mental health in recent years.

“Prior to Dr. Parker coming, we did not have any licensed clinicians on staff. We did have social workers and psychologists,” said Mitchell.

Five years ago, there were no mental health therapists. Today, they have 13.

“Every school in Newport News has access to a mental health therapist,” said Mitchell.

Not all schools in the region have mental health therapists directly available to students.

This year, Newport News also increased the number of professional school counselors. Mitchell said they got a special grant that provides them additional resources. She said each educator is taught what warning signs to look out for, and 10 kids in each high school underwent specialized training to identify problems.

“Peers are more likely to talk to another peer,” said Mitchell.

She said the goal is to improve the mental health of students but more so to combat other issues associated with mental health and improve the overall well-being of all students.

“We decided that attacking mental health was really a way to attack poor attendance, discipline problems or poor academics in Newport News,” said Mitchell.

News 3 asked school districts in Hampton Roads the following questions:

  • What programs are in place for students who are dealing with mental issues?
  • What protocol is in place for teachers and staff to identify potential problems or concerns?
  • How concerned are you about virtual learning, COVID and issue with mental issues?
  • Were any resources added to this school year? If so, what were the resources?

Here's what they said:

Hampton City Schools

What programs are in place for students who are dealing with mental issues?

Hampton City Schools has had an intentional focus on Climate and Culture to include social emotional learning (SEL) over the past four years - click here for more information on that. The division offers a comprehensive approach to academic, behavioral and social emotional skills through tiered supports and interventions that focus around five competencies—self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, responsible decision making. A tool kit of resources is available for staff to explicitly teach these skills and these competencies are interwoven into all curriculum areas.

Additionally, every school has a team of professionals that are available to students and families. Each school has a school counselor and middle and high schools have a counseling team. School counselors offer the first tier of support and are trained in recognizing signs of depression, anxiety, self-harm and other mental health needs. School counselors are prepared to conduct risk assessments for suicide and assist with threat assessments for students whose mental health needs may result in violent acts. School counselors provide classroom instruction related to SEL and meet with groups or individual students as needs demand. Parents/guardians should contact the school principal or school counselor if they recognize mental health needs or have questions about their child’s mental health and wellness or the opportunities provided by the counselor. HCS also has a department of school psychologists and school social workers. These mental health specialists are available to each school. School social workers are available for group sessions and are trained to recognize mental health needs. In addition, select schools have restorative counselors, student support interventionists, family engagement specialists, attendance-based workers and behavioral specialists who all support the mental and behavior needs of students. Each of these groups also maintain up-to-date information about community resources and are prepared to facilitate referrals to agencies and service providers, as necessary.

What protocol is in place for teachers and staff to identify potential problems or concerns?

Each staff member receives training on student mental health awareness, intervention and referral. Training is also provided on de-escalation strategies for students who are emotionally upset and volatile. This training is mandatory each year. As part of an on-going menu of professional learning opportunities, additional, more focused training is provided on such topics as trauma informed care, positive self-care and coping strategies. Classroom teachers and school administrators are able to reach out to school counselors, school social workers, and school psychologists by referral to consult, observe, and collaborate to design interventions to address individual student needs. Each school has a process for a multidisciplinary team to meet with parents/guardians and students to design a support plan for academics, social emotional, attendance, or behavioral needs. HCS also has a division level team to support families and students who may need access to additional community resources and supports.

How concerned are you about virtual learning, COVID and issue with mental issues?

We recognize that we are living in an ever-changing pandemic and education looks different. Our mission and goal is always to support our students and their needs. As students returned to in-person learning, HCS school administrators and teachers intentionally took time to create welcoming environments where relationships could be built and reestablished.

Do you have a breakdown of how much money is budgeted in your district for mental health resources in the past 5 years?

In addition to our operating budget [hampton.k12.va.us], HCS is using $6,072,716 or 11.08% of its ARP Act ESSER III funds to support students’ academic, social, emotional, and mental needs as well as staff social, emotional, and mental health needs, as described in the divisions' ARPA ESSER III Fund Spending Plan [docs.google.com].

Were any resources added to this school year? If so, what were the resources?

The division increased staff in our departments of school social work, school psychology, and student counseling, as well as hired a mental health specialist who collaborates with the division level team to better coordinate mental health services in the community. Additionally, last year, each school had a counselor trained in mindfulness strategies.

The division does not have a position titled mental health therapist. However, we do have 27 staff members (i.e., school social workers, school psychologists, student support interventionists, intensive intervention coordinator, mental health specialist, restorative counselor) who are licensed mental health professionals.

Norfolk Public Schools

Sections of our COVID-19 plan address mental health resources for students:

“For the provision of mental health services, the Departments of Student Support Services, Student Wellness, and School Counseling will be available to provide mental health support. When mental health service needs rise above what can be provided by the school, mental health staff member, will provide support through the employee assistance referral process (e.g., EAP, COMP PSYCH) to access services through appropriate community agencies.”

You may find the section above within the Plan for Safe Return to In-Person Instruction.

Additionally, our departments of Student Support Services and Student Wellness provide resources to students and parents.

You can find information on our School Psychology Department here.

Further, some of our individual schools have posted a variety of resources on COVID-19 and mental health.

Norfolk Public Schools has:

  • 23 full time school social worker
  • 1 part time school social workers
  • 23 full time school psychologists
  • 1 part time school psychologist
  • 50 school nurses
  • 1 part time school nurse

Just using the full-time employees above that would be a total of 96.

Approximately 28,000 students divided by 96 full time employees would be 1 per 292 students or 3 employees per 876 students. We meet the threshold.

Suffolk Public Schools

Suffolk Public Schools has a partnership with Western Tidewater Community Services Board. Teachers can refer students to our school counselors for any unusual behaviors or red flags (staff receives annual training).

Counselors can conduct their own sessions and also refer to our WTCSB case managers who can further assess based on parent permission to determine further services are needed.

This partnership doesn't cost us anything. We are looking to add telemental health services for our students and staff using CARES act money and we're in the RFP process now.

Portsmouth Public Schools

We launched our Here to Help campaign in February of this year, and it outlined the mental health resources and supports provided for all of our students, parents and staff members. As the news release pointed out, the campaign was built on the work of our school psychologists and school counselors who had been collecting and sharing resources for families since all schools were closed in March of 2020. At the time, there was more of a focus in dealing with how to handle issues connected to isolation in the virtual setting and all of the combined stressors of living and working in a pandemic, but with the start of this school year (and back in-person), the division has also worked to spotlight our evergreen counseling services as well (https://www.ppsk12.us/heretohelp).

  • In 2016, the division had 38 school counselors; in 2021, we have 45.
  • In 2016, we had no behavioral interventionists; in 2021, we have 5.
  • Finally, our number of school psychologists has remained the same - we had 10 in 2016 and 10 in 2021.

Virginia Beach City Public Schools

What programs are in place for students who are dealing with mental health concerns?

The school counseling programs in each of our schools and centers provide students direct access to mental health supports. As licensed, school-based mental health professionals and school counselors are ready and able to respond to students’ immediate needs. When students are in need of additional supports, we rely on our strong partnerships with community-based mental health providers like CHKD, VB Child and Youth Behavioral Health, the Kempsville Center for Behavioral Health, the Barry Robinson Center, Family Insight Services and the National Counseling Group. For example, in October, we scheduled professional learning activities through CHKD for all school counselors on How to Address Student Anxiety. We consistently check-in with schools to assess potential needs and ensure resources are provided in a timely fashion. VBCPS school counselors and staff meet with representatives from these organizations annually and work with them regularly to help ensure a continuity of care for our students as well as their families.

What protocol is in place for teachers and staff to identify potential problems or concerns?

All VBCPS instructional staff complete an annual mandatory employee training on student mental health. This covers signs and symptoms to be aware of and directs staff to report concerns to any of the qualified school personnel (school counselor, school nurse, school psychologist and school social worker) who can provide assistance. This information is reviewed at the school level prior to the beginning of the school year, and we emphasize the need to report concerns immediately via phone or in-person conversations.

How concerned are you about virtual learning, COVID and issues with mental health concerns?

We recognize how students and families continue to struggle with issues related to COVID. The data from our local mental health service providers indicate there are significant concerns related to the well-being of our students. In acknowledging the data and trends, we are concerned and remain committed to helping wherever and however possible. For example, we have school counselors and staff dedicated to supporting our students who are receiving their 100% of their instruction virtually. These staff work to stay connected with students as well as their families and make every effort for students to stay in contact with staff from their assigned school. Furthermore, in recognition of these concerns, our school division remains committed to making progress on all the recommendations shared by our Mental Health Task Force this past summer. The task force will continue meeting this school year to monitor progress and implementation.

Were any resources added to this school year? If so, what were the resources?

For our students, we continue to review and expand literary resources, and we secured Cameron’s Camp (K-6) as well as Cameron’s Collection (7-12). For our staff, we purchased a copy of each of the following titles for our school counselors. We are leveraging resources from Erika’s Lighthouse to support our students’ mental health needs. Furthermore, school counseling programs are provided with a voucher to purchase even more resources for their school through a virtual bookstore showcase.

Newport News Public Schools

Click here to see their information

Chesapeake Public Schools

What programs are in place for students who are dealing with mental issues? 

  • “Morning Meetings” - Elementary school teachers discuss social emotional wellness with students. (TF)
  • RAM (Responsive Advisory  Meetings) - Middle school teachers provide guided discussion in regards to social emotional wellness. (TF)
  • Professional School Counselors provide the following: (TF)
  1. Meeting with students in crisis and completing crisis assessments.
  2. Meeting with 9th graders to present the "More Than Sad" Teen Depression program, Planning to switch to Erika's Lighthouse program this year.
  3.  Training staff on the signs and symptoms of teen depression  (the counseling directors  do this).
  4.  School-Based Counseling Program partnership with the CIBH (currently only at OSHS and OSMS).
  5.  School counselors or principal designees will work with school staff members to identify students potentially in need of school-based counseling services. Common characteristics of appropriate referrals include, but are not limited to, the following:
  • Depression/Anxiety
  • Suicidal/Homicidal Ideation
  • Self-Injurious Behaviors
  • School Attendance/Truancy
  • Difficulty w/Family Dynamics
  • Difficulty Regulating Emotions
  • School Social Workers complete “check-ins'' with students,  conduct home visits and  meet with families with potential to refer students/families to outside agencies as deemed necessary. (TF)
  • School Psychologists assist with students in crisis situations and teacher consultations.
  • CIBH Counselors at OSHS to provide mental health support. (TF)
  • SEL Advisory Council using CASEL Model (Partnership with CHKD, CIBH, KCBH, YMCA, United Way, Communities in Schools (CIS), Life Chagne Institue, NAMI, ODU). (TF)
  • Provided Training to School Counselors for Crisis Form(s) Intervention for students in crisis. (TF)
  • Additional Military Counselors
  • Additional position “Student Engagement and Resource Counselor, for Office of Student Conduct and Support

How concerned are you about virtual learning, COVID and issues with mental issues?

Mental health is always a concern; however, we believe that the systems we have in place provide effective avenues of support for our students. (CP)

Were any resources added to this school year? If so, what were the resources?

Schoology Account for Administration and Teaching staff with access to SEL Professional Library and SEL Activities to foster social emotional wellness. (TF)

Additional school-based mental health professionals were added to our school division staff. We significantly increased the number of school counselors, school social workers, and school psychologists for the 2021-2022 school year. (CP)

Additional Military Family Life Counselors were also added through our partnership with the military.

Chesapeake Public Schools (CPS) is one of 7 school divisions to participate in a 5-year, $6 million federal grant that has been received by the Virginia Department of Education. Participation in the grant provides CPS access to a web-based platform designed to support the recruitment and retention of school-based mental health service providers and expand the pool of qualified applicants. The platform will provide a single point of access to support recruitment and retention, including access to high-quality professional development; information on licensure, recertification, respecialization and credential reciprocity; telemental health resources; and information on hiring incentives in the participating school divisions. VDOE and ODU will also develop staff education and training materials for the participating divisions. (CP)

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