Johnson County schools, superintendents address mental health - Daily Journal

For Mental Health Awareness Month, the six Johnson County school district superintendents got together for a video emphasizing the importance of mental health care.

The video, released May 5, emphasizes escalating mental health struggles among students.

“Students are struggling to manage stress and adapt to the pressure of everyday life,” Clark-Pleasant schools Superintendent Patrick Spray said in the video.

Poor mental health care can negatively affect all areas of life, Franklin schools Superintendent David Clendening said.

“Feelings of anxiety, depression and isolation lead to poor academic performance, increased behavioral problems, substance abuse, school violence and juvenile incarceration,” Clendening said in the video.

Some of the largest school districts in Johnson County have made it a priority to increase accessibility to mental health services for students and staff members.

At Clark-Pleasant and Franklin schools, property tax increases via referendums included money dedicated to those services. Franklin schools, for example, hired its first-ever mental director, hired five more counselors and social workers to address mental health needs in upper grades and added four therapy dogs to help ease the minds of elementary school students.

Franklin schools has three tiers of mental health support for students, the first being general mental health awareness and self-care among students, such as stress management and coping with anxiety. Tier 2 is more individualized, and includes individual and group counseling sessions at school, either with Franklin schools-employed counselors and social workers or work with the school under contracts with Adult and Child Health and the Bowen Center. The third tier, which is the most intensive, occurs with students who have the most serious need, and includes referrals to therapists and social workers outside of school, said Kim Spurling, the school district’s mental health director.

The therapy dogs have had an especially positive impact on students and staff members alike, Spurling said.

“Students have the opportunity to play with the dogs to maintain a calm state prior to exams,” she said. “Any time we bring the dogs anywhere across the school district, it uplifts the staff immensely, even a 30 second to one minute pat on the head or scratch to the chin, a staff member walks away with a smile.”

But at a time when teachers are leaving the profession, there is an increased focus on the mental wellbeing of staff members, Spurling said.

“We have our Wellness Committee, led by Katie Smith, principal at Union (Elementary School), we do a lot of activities throughout the year to promote health and wellness. (Wednesday), we had a scavenger hunt. We give them a break and allow them to do something fun and have team camaraderie,” she said. “We have gyms throughout the district teachers can utilize to help with health and wellness. The mental health team including myself provides in-house support to teachers as well.”

At Clark-Pleasant schools, money for mental health from its referendum helped school officials partner with Adult and Child Health and the Bowen Center for a therapist in each building, with the school district paying part of each therapist’s salary so they can assist every student, not just those with insurance. The school district also hired one behavioral health specialist, social workers for both the middle school and high school and behavioral skills assistants at all elementary schools to help with coping skills and emotional regulation, said Connie Poston, the district’s behavioral health director.

At Whiteland Community High School, each grade will have a dean, counselor and mental health specialist in order to best provide individual support for students. Mental health support is important for not only students who are clearly exhibiting symptoms of mental health difficulties, but also for those who are silently suffering, she said.

“We’ve seen a lot of students internalizing behaviors, sometimes with anxiety or depression and we’re doing a lot of work with our staff on identifying students who have internalizing behaviors to have an adult to talk to,” Poston said. “If a student is withdrawn or not talking or having connections with peers or adults, sometimes we’ll see they’ll stop taking care of themselves whether it’s not showering or other normal, personal care. It can be a sign of something bigger happening so we talk with bus drivers, train them on this, if a students is on the bus happy every morning and then for a couple of weeks, they’re not their normal happy, we encourage our staff to ask the kiddos, ‘is everything OK?’”

Trust between staff members and students is one of the best ways to reach children who may be struggling with mental health but don’t know who to turn to, said Christy Berger, Center Grove schools’ director of school counseling and mental health.

“When building resilience factors into young people and the challenges they may face, one of the best factors is a relationship with a trusted and healthy adult,” Berger said. “We encourage staff members to make connections with students, seeing what they’re like outside of school, which can help young people that struggle and give them a reason to come to school and continue to a college, occupation or the service.”

At Center Grove schools, elementary students get mental health services from school social workers and school counselors, both of which tackle mental health-related aspects of students’ lives. In the higher grades, counselors are often there to help students with academic planning, so Center Grove High School and the district’s two middle schools all have both counselors and social workers. Center Grove schools social workers are provided through a contract with Community Health Network, Berger said.

Additionally, Center Grover staff members and members of their households all qualify for free counseling services, Berger said.

Edinburgh schools may not have as many resources as some of Johnson County’s largest school districts, but school officials continue to find ways within the school district’s budget to help students. Along with counselors in each school building, the district provides therapists through Adult and Child and partnerships with counseling centers in Johnson and Bartholomew counties, classroom lessons on mental health topics and support for staff members, Superintendent Ron Ross said in an email.

“We do classroom lessons on mental health topics. Kindness Week and Red Ribbon Week also include mental health elements. Information is sent home to parents when appropriate and, on occasion, parents themselves will ask for help,” he said.

Edinburgh counselors also provide mental health resources to school staff.

“They will meet with teachers to make sure that they have the resources needed to support their students,” Ross said. “Our counselors will meet with staff when they notice or are aware of difficult emotional times in their lives. We also have an employee assistance program through our insurance. Mental health is a growing need in our community. We are continuing to evaluate that need to make sure that we have the resources in place to support our students and staff in the best ways possible.”

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