Nationally, before COVID-19, research indicated that around one in five children had a mental health need, according to Tara Elsner, director of school based services with Adult & Child Health.
Adult & Child Health provides services in around 130 schools in Indiana, including seven schools in the Monroe County Community School Corp. and all four schools in the Richland-Bean Blossom Community School Corp., and Elsner said during the pandemic, that need is now closer to one in two children.
Adult & Child is just one of the organizations R-BB works with. During a pandemic that has impacted everyone within a school community, mental health supports offered by R-BB have been expanding, and the district has a plan for sustaining the efforts even as grant funding ends.
Over the summer, the district hired a new licensed mental health counselor who mainly works with elementary and junior high students but will eventually be phased into working with high schoolers as well, said Jennifer Anderson, R-BB director of special education.
The TIMS grant from the U.S. Department of Education allows the district to collaborate with the school psychology program at Indiana University and is being spread over a five-year period. Also through the TIMS grant, R-BB brought on two graduate assistants and two school psychology practicum students from IU.
Also new this year, R-BB has brought on a licensed clinical social worker through Youth First organization who is working at Edgewood Junior High School. That was possible through a Lilly Endowment grant for counseling services of $273,550.
In just four months, the positive impact and benefit mental health support is having on students is already evident, Anderson said. It’s exciting to think about that continuing, she said, and most importantly, it’s what students need.
“Already in such a short time to start to see those positive trends and positive changes, it gives you goosebumps,” Anderson said. “It’s fantastic.”
And it’s being noticed. Heather Ormiston, a clinical assistant faculty member in the school psychology program at IU and co-director of the TIMS grant, said the director of policy and advocacy with the National Association of School Psychologists has reached out to her to learn more about the work that R-BB is doing and the positive impact on teachers, students and families.
“They’re hoping to use this work to springboard some of the policy and advocacy efforts that they’re doing at the state and federal level,” Ormiston said. “It’s very exciting that the district can be kind of at the forefront in supporting this long-term policy change that we’re trying to advocate for in education as a whole.”
Along with new staff being made possible through grants, more staff are being brought in via outside organizations. Tom Norris, R-BB student services coordinator, leads the coordination of services with outside organizations like Child & Adult Health and said R-BB has increased the number of referrals to Adult & Child Health.
Due to that increase, the district now has a skills specialist and someone focused on providing therapy, where before, one person covered both. Another part-time therapist is being hired to work with R-BB, provided through Adult & Child Health, Norris said.
Need is high
During the pandemic, within all the districts Child & Adult Health serves, the demand and need for mental health services is very high, Elsner said.
“Before COVID, it felt like we were living, we had life,” Elsner siad. “In COVID, as a society, we’ve moved to surviving. How do I get through today? And what part of what that is is the chronic unpredictability of what tomorrow brings.”
Parents and children alike wonder if they’ll get sick, if they’ll have to quarantine, what the next day or week of school will look like. People have questions that don’t always have concrete answers, she said.
That increases feelings of anxiety and depression, and people are more isolated due to the pandemic.
Elsner said offering services in schools has become even more critical during the pandemic.
“It’s so much easier to say I’m going to go to school than it is to say I’m going to go to the mental health clinic today,” Elsner said. “It automatically removes the stigma of it. It also removes the barrier of mom, dad, grandma, whoever, having to leave work, go get their kid from school and take them to the clinic, because the service is already right there at the school for them.”
Being in school brings convenience and allows for consistency since it doesn’t depend on the schedule of a child’s caretaker, she said. Elsner said services provided by Adult & Child Health are still being offered in schools that are open for in-person instruction, but staff also do home visits, while taking precautions, if families are comfortable with that, along with virtual sessions.
Elsner said at the start of the pandemic, virtual sessions were seen as kind of a fun and cool thing. As time has gone on, children have become tired of being on the computer for school all day then again for sessions, she said.
“Now they didn’t want to see us virtually, they wanted face to face just because of that connection piece and longing for it desperately,” Elsner said.
Teams within each school in R-BB meet virtually weekly to talk about students who need services, Anderson said, and R-BB is offering mental health services virtually or one on one in buildings.
“We’ve tried to be as accommodating as possible and just letting the parents of families know that we’re here, if it’s better for you to bring your child in or if you want to meet online, we’re really flexible with our time in doing that and happy to continue those services,” Anderson said.
Managing change, loss
The pandemic has caused a departure from what the norm is for students, Anderson said, but R-BB’s mental health staff are helping students through managing transitions — from hybrid schedules to all e-learning, and changes they saw in the classroom like wearing masks and having desk shields — and aim to support parents and teachers as well, Anderson said.
“It’s a lot to take on and moving from in person to online, some students really struggle with that,” Anderson said.
Students are also struggling with the loss of loved ones. R-BB’s licensed mental health counselor, Brittany Straw, has started a grief group, Anderson said.
“Having that grief group there and knowing that you have someone to speak with and somebody to support you is huge, because we have seen an increase, I would say, in students who have lost someone significant,” Anderson said. “So that’s been a change and something we haven’t had the opportunity to have before. I think that’s been a positive change.”
Teachers have taken on a significant increase in workload to manage online and in-person teaching, Ormiston said, while also worrying about their own health and health of family members. Teachers are also being concerned about their students’ mental health, Ormiston said.
“It’s such a profound impact on our communities and on our society as a whole,” Ormiston said. “We’re just starting, I think, to see the true impact of all of this, and I think we’re going to see an impact from this for many years to come.”
Ormiston said nationally, the pandemic has highlighted the inequities within communities, one example being reliable technology and internet access for the ability to participate in online learning. School provides many services, including access to food, and provides stability to students. During the pandemic, the issues parents or guardians are facing, such as economic insecurity and job loss, also impact children.
Supporting parents is a long term goal of R-BB’s social emotional learning team, Anderson said, and they are looking at ways to further provide support for parents and teachers. R-BB’s mental health counselor and school psychologists have put together gift baskets and notes of support for teachers who are facing trauma, Anderson said, like the death of a loved one.
“We’ve been very careful to ensure that the curriculum, the programs, are very sustainable, and it’s not going to cost the corporation a significant amount of funds each year, that it’s more personnel driven,” Anderson said.
Last month, R-BB received a $25,000 grant from the Community Foundation of Bloomington and Monroe County. The grant will pay for trust-based relational intervention training, an attachment-based trauma-informed intervention that’s designed to meet the complex needs of vulnerable children.
In the spring, everyone in the corporation will receive TBRI training. Many people who make up R-BB’s mental health staff who were around before any grant funding or will be retained after grant funding ends will be able to train others. That will be part of the onboarding process of new staff, Anderson said.
So, the mental health support efforts don’t just hinge on the knowledge of a few people, where if they left, the initiatives would end, Ormiston said. Instead, it’s becoming an institutionalized system of how things work in the district.
“The partnership, even if grant funds go away, I can very much see work continuing to support students and teachers and faculty within R-BB,” Ormiston said. “It’s just a great team to work for.”
The result of interventions to support mental health also impacts academics, Anderson said, which has been proven by research.
R-BB has been known for its tiered academic instruction and understanding of RTI, Norris said, which is Response To Intervention, a way to identify struggling students and use a targeted approach to work with them. Norris said a goal of the district is to apply the same multi-tiered system of support used academically to the social and emotional support for students.
“None of this, I think, is sustainable without the support of your superintendent,” Anderson said. “Dr. Sanders has been the biggest cheerleader for this corporation and the biggest cheerleader to us providing these mental health supports for students.”
Anderson said R-BB’s mental health team is also grateful for the school board’s support.
“I think we have been so incredibly lucky to be able to have found the right people for the right jobs at the right time,” Anderson said. “I couldn’t be prouder of this team.”