topics In The News In-school mental health counseling successful amid continued tragedy

In-school mental health counseling successful amid continued tragedy

This article was originally published by the Beaumont Enterprise on June 12, 2021.

When Tropical Storm Harvey inundated Southeast Texas, it took thousands of homes and uprooted livelihoods. While much of the devastation has been repaired and reconstructed, the trauma reverberates to this day.

In Vidor, two schools were flooded beyond repair, leaving beleaguered staff to return to teach with limited resources in temporary buildings.

Students, some with no homes and few clothes, returned, too.

One student The Enterprise interviewed in 2019 was excited to learn he would spend his fifth-grade year on the campus of Vidor High School. His older brother was there and now he, too, would feel like a “high-schooler.”

But it wasn’t long before his excitement gave way to crushing anxiety. Being crammed in unfamiliar classrooms with some 30 other students made him so claustrophobic that he threw up almost every day. His parents got him treatment, but the symptoms persisted into the spring.

Vidor ISD took notice of the widespread mental health issues.

“I knew right away. It didn’t take a lot to see the suffering that kids and adults were going through,” Superintendent Jay Killgo told The Enterprise.

“We had a lot of grant funds, but you can only give so many clothes and so many backpacks. So, what can you use it for? We just knew mental health was a priority.”

In response, the district took an unusual approach for the area — bringing behavioral health specialists in to work for the district.

“Most school districts contract with either individual therapists or non-profit agencies to provide therapy for students,” said Amanda Chism, one of Vidor ISD’s behavioral health specialists. “One therapist comes one day each week and visits with the students with the greatest needs. It’s an important service, but only available to a very limited amount of students.”

The approach Vidor is taking, Chism said, is closer to that taken by larger school districts like Austin ISD.

“Vidor ISD (has) pioneered in our area what larger school districts have been doing for a while: Hiring an actual team of professionals to meet the mental health needs of the students,” Chism said.

With initial grant funding from the Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute, VISD approved the hiring of two behavioral health specialists to focus on addressing widespread mental health issues across the district.

Tegan Henke, the senior director of Program Implementation for Child and Family Policy for the Institute, said several schools in the region received post-Harvey grants.

“We at The Meadows Institute were granted funds from the Red Cross to support school districts in their behavioral health response to (Harvey),” Henke said. “We had partnered with the Texas Education Agency shortly after (Harvey) … to do a survey of school districts to just assess their needs for mental health supports and what they perceived.”

Vidor ISD reported that students, staff and caregivers were struggling with mental health needs that increased across the district after Harvey.

The Meadows Institute’s initial goal for the money was to increase the ability for staff to recognize mental health needs.

“We know that … at least 75% of mental health needs present before age 14,” Henke said. “So, it is a pediatric illness, and we want to improve a school district’s ability to recognize a mental health need among students.”

The secondary goal, Henke said, was to help schools link students to various mental health services, either at the school or through an external source.

Port Arthur ISD and Little Cypress-Mauriceville Consolidated Independent School District also received funds but did not hire behavioral specialists to work directly on campus.

“For each school it is really an individualized decision,” Henke said. “They may or may not have the capacity to provide something like that, but whether they can work with their community partners, they can bring in specialists who could provide services within the school or employ somebody who can provide trauma or other intensive services, that is certainly important.”

Oftentimes in more rural districts, there are fewer mental health professionals available. But because of Vidor’s proximity to Beaumont, the district was able to find mental health professionals who could come, she said.

The team at Vidor said they are in the unique position of helping students with run-of-the-mill mental health issues as well as those that come along with the looming possibility of natural disasters that has seemed increasingly more likely over the past few years.

“It’s one thing to help a student learn coping skills to manage his or her anger,” Chism said. “It’s something very different to help a student do so who is in a class full of fellow students each with their own emotional issues from the trauma they have endured, with a teacher dealing with her own stresses of having a house repaired and a loved one in the hospital with COVID, in a town where every person, every age, every gender has been touched in some way by these events and where an untouchable, undefinable sense of stress and weariness hangs in the air over every conversation and interaction.”

“That,” Chism said with emphasis, “Is not therapy as usual.”

The district has just started to gather data on the program’s impact, but one quantifiable side effect has been a noticeable decrease in disciplinary referrals.

At the end of the 2017 school year, there were more than 2,200 disciplinary referrals in Vidor ISD, according to district data. At the close of the 2019-2020 school year, there were fewer than 900.

While the data was cut short due to COVID-19, district officials estimate that the entire district would have had fewer than 1,200 referrals had the year continued in person.

With the success of the program, the institute offered funding from the American Red Cross to expand it. Three more specialists have been hired, two of which are full-time licensed professional counselors. All campuses now have the benefits of a dedicated individual counseling students on a regular basis.

The additions also lightened the load on campus counselors.

“School counselors will be the first people to tell you that they cannot truly counsel,” District spokesperson Sally Andrews said in a report to donors. “They are too busy working on testing, 504 meetings … and scheduling, to name a few things. Having behavioral specialists who are able and ready to meet on a regularly-scheduled basis with students has made life-changing differences.”

While the initial program was a response to a dire need, a regular succession of disasters in the years since have proven the program still relevant and effective.

“I think the trauma from all of those events has built over the past few years and it’s really taken its toll in our region,” said Heather Champion, Director of Quality Assurance for the Spindletop Center. “We’ve seen an increase in the trauma response for individuals whenever there’s a hard rain or whenever there’s news of another storm in the Gulf possibly headed in our direction.”

Spindletop, which provides mental health services in Southeast Texas, also provides specialists to provide similar school support.

Champion said more schools are participating in such programs as schools return to in-person learning.

Having behavioral health specialists dedicated to school children means there is little wait, Chism said, compared to other districts that refer students to outside mental health organizations.

With another active hurricane season on the horizon, Vidor ISD is looking to the future. Two new campuses are under construction, and the portable buildings are seeing their final years of use.

The Red Cross funding has come to an end, but VISD acquired local funds to continue the program from Hancock Whitney and other donors, including an anonymous VISD alum who donated $155,000.

In the coming years, Chism and Killgo said they hope to make the program a permanent part of the school, as students and the community continue to heal.

“Major traumas like the floods and pandemic can have ripple effects for generations after they occur,” Chism said. “The research on generational trauma is eye opening to say the least, but by providing therapy to our students we are doing so much more than offering a free service. We are helping an entire community heal.”

The full article is available online here.