Story by Cleoniki Kesidis
As pandemic conditions change, the need for mental health services in schools continues to rise.
“It’s like a tsunami,” says Stacey Doyle, a Washtenaw Intermediate School District (WISD) social worker. “Because of the pandemic, a lot of students are coping with loss right now. Loss of their life before COVID, loss of family members to COVID. There’s a lot of isolation, a lot of depression.”
“Little ones, especially first graders, feel a lot of anxiety about COVID,” adds Najah Hamka, another WISD social worker.
“They started kindergarten on Zoom and started masking from a young age. Now, they’re anxious that mask mandates are ending. They’re anxious about hugging classmates since they were taught not to from the beginning. And older kids have anxious thoughts about COVID and fears for the health of family members.”
On top of depression and anxiety, students are dealing with the economic consequences of the pandemic and the impact of two years of missed social interaction.
It’s a lot. And it’s leading to an increase in challenging behaviors in classrooms and an increase in the need for support.
Social workers like Hamka and Doyle are able to be there to meet that need because of a recent program that funds social workers for general education students in Washtenaw County schools.
Funding support for general education students
All schools receive funding for services for special education students. But in many districts, there isn’t funding for mental health services for general education students without identified special needs.
In Michigan, grant 31N makes that funding available.
WISD is using Michigan’s 31N funding for a wide range of programs: youth mental health first aid, a self-care module for staff and students, and a “Handle with Care” program that alerts school staff about children who may have experienced a traumatic experience or emergency.
With the University of Michigan Depression Center’s TRAILS program, they’ve expanded their social emotional learning curriculum to younger grades. And they’ve funded telehealth licenses that make their services HIPAA and FERPA compliant.
They’ve also been able to provide social workers like Hamka and Doyle for general education students.
The grant allows the district to hire specific mental health professionals–including licensed or limited license social workers, counselors, and nurses, as well as psychiatrists, psychologists, and others–to work with general education students. The section has a partial fund matching requirement, which the Washtenaw County Community Mental Health (CMH) millage is enabling WISD to meet.
“We convened several years ago to decide how to use our initial allotment, which was on the small side,” says Sarah Hierman, a grants and special projects coordinator for WISD. “We met with a group of both school professionals and behavioral health professionals, including staff from CMH, to figure out how to implement a program that is really impactful, knowing we have a big county with a diversity of needs”
The group identified communities needing additional support, and decided to use the grant to fund social workers there. They began with one social worker rotating through Milan, Saline, Ypsilanti, and Lincoln school districts.
Now, three years into the program, their allocation has increased and funds 3.25 full-time social workers in those districts, as well as Whitmore Lake and Manchester schools. Discussions are in progress on how best to support the Ann Arbor community as well. And they’ve added a referral process that allows Medicaid-eligible students to be billed through Medicaid, which could support the program long-term.
Extra hands where they’re needed most
The 31N social workers, including Hamka and Doyle, provide individual and group therapy for suicide prevention, loss, depression, anxiety, trauma, and more.
They focus on finding solutions for challenging behavior in class and teaching coping skills, which Hamka says can usually be addressed in eight to twelve weeks. If students need more intensive services, the 31N social workers do a warm handoff to a community outpatient care provider.
Ensuring children receive adequate mental health care is critical, says Hamka, who works mainly with elementary school aged children. “It’s important to start at this age. The longer they wait to receive help, the harder it will be to address the issues and minimize symptoms.”
Doyle says she’s worked with about 40 students this year. The general education students she and Hamka see are usually referred from school social workers, but also from counselors, principals, administrators, teachers, and sometimes juvenile probation officers or truancy officers.
“We need all the support we can get for our children and our schools,” says Doyle. “Teachers are overwhelmed right now. A lot of kids have been living through trauma and they’re not able to focus in the classroom. And social workers are at capacity everywhere right now.”
“Without 31N, general education students wouldn’t get these services,” says Hamka. “School social workers are overloaded with special education and higher-need students.”
Before this program, school social workers had to refer general education students to community counseling services. But community services aren’t always accessible or the best fit for students.
“Students may want to be in therapy, but their parents don’t have the time or resources to get there, or the wait lists are too long,” says Doyle. “We’re able to implement services while students are waiting to get long-term services in the community, or to remove some barriers that were preventing them from getting the therapy that they wanted or needed.”
Providing services in schools directly is an advantage in itself.
“Parents are relieved knowing kids can receive services when already in school,” says Hamka, explaining that it can be challenging for a parent to take their child to community care.
“Being in groups with classmates also allows kids to see that their friends have similar struggles,” adds Hamka. She appreciates how openly mental health is discussed in Washtenaw County schools and loves to see the children she works with sharing what they learn.
“They take their tips and tell their friends, ‘You should try deep breathing or counting backwards, I tried it and it worked for me.’”
“There’s something different about being part of the schools and having the opportunity to connect with students in their safe place,” agrees Doyle.
Doyle also appreciates being able to connect with school staff. “We get to know the secretary, the lunchroom workers, the supervisors. If you’re stationed in the community, you’re not going to meet all these support people who interact with the children you serve.”
“Just knowing there’s somebody there that they could go to is really important for a young person,” adds Hierman. “Even if all the social worker is doing is stabilizing the situation to allow the student to step back into the classroom and be able to focus. And if a student requires long term or crisis care, then we have somebody in place who can connect them. It bridges access for kids.”
Collaborative support outside the school environment
While meeting students in school is an advantage, another unique and valuable part of the 31N program is that social workers can go beyond the schools to interact with a student’s family and community.
For example, the 31N social workers are able to do home visits, which school social workers usually do not have the capacity to do.
“Not only are we working with the student individually, but we get to work with the family,” says Doyle. “ We get out into the community and are able to meet our kids where they’re at. That’s so unique.”
One of the program’s objectives is to provide case management and wraparound care, which Hierman says many families need.
“A lot of our kids are intersecting in multiple areas of support,” says Hierman. “For example, a young person who might be homeless may also be seen in truancy and have referrals for mental health support. Often, the trauma kids are enduring is coming from their home situation. We aim to approach this comprehensively so that we’re not just offering therapy, we’re also providing families the tools they need to continue that care, and helping them identify resources to support them.”
The 31N social workers may help families find resources to pay for electricity, water, food, or rent, or support them in accessing transportation or housing. They’ve also helped connect parents to educational programs to complete their GED.
“It’s really about the whole family,” says Hierman. “Not just the student who’s in the building.”
The social workers collaborate with other organizations outside the schools as well.
In one common scenario, Doyle says, “We were able to have the family, the student, teachers, social workers, child protective services, and truancy officers sitting at the table and working collaboratively to keep the child safe and well. The child could use their own voice to say what their needs were to feel successful in our community.”
Doyle believes this kind of collaboration can help to break cycles of arrest or hospitalization.
“They matter more than anything.”
Michigan has allowed more flexibility in the use of the 31N funds due to the pandemic. In addition to using the funds to support coordination of services, WISD is now able to include staff at less than a licensed master’s level.
To maximize the impact of this more flexible funding, WISD is partnering with the millage to create a paid internship program for master’s level social work students at the Eastern Michigan University School of Social Work.
WISD plans to hire four interns this September to run therapy groups and provide case management. The interns will significantly expand how much the current team can do and will help them meet students’ needs.
“My hope for this program is that kids see that they’re valued and important, and that’s why the community is implementing these additional resources,” says Doyle. “Because they matter more than anything. They’re so special. I hope they get the message that the millage isn’t just for adults, and that we are making sure they get the services that they deserve.”