Comprehensive Counseling Is The Goal For One School

Dec 4, 2017

Young adults in Indiana are struggling. Teens experience a growing number of social and emotional needs but support can be hard to come by in the one place they may turn: schools.

Teens at Fishers High School, in an affluent suburb of Indianapolis, may seem to have it made but many confront issues that could lead to larger problems. Mental health coordinator for Hamilton Southeastern Schools, Brooke Lawson says things recently got a little easier for these students.

“We were able to start this year with a mental health counselor in every building,” says Lawson.

She says support starts with school counselors who can make the right connections and that can mean an issue that may otherwise escalate, gets addressed.

“We know that school is the best place for students to receive that support,” says Lawson.

Schools provide access and may be the one place where students can address stresses in their lives and find an open door to talk.

Lawson on after a city referendum passed to provide mental health services at its 21 schools. Her position is not usually on district payrolls in Indiana.

“I hear all around the state how parents, students, teachers and staff aren’t open to students receiving mental health services in the schools,” says Lawson. “I think we’re lucky in our community because our mayor started the conversation.”

Fishers Mayor Scott Fadness kicked off a citywide stigma free mental health campaign three years ago. He was struck by how many people in his community were having mental health problems and the city’s high suicide rates – between 11 to 14 people a year.

A coalition of city stakeholders have committed to the issue, including schools. It was through a planning grant from the Lilly Endowment last year that the district conducted a survey.

Hamilton Southeastern School Foundation’s Freedom Kolb helped the system administer the grants and says survey data was confirmation.

“Our community is underserved by public mental health support,” says Kolb. “Our students are at a higher risk for anxiety, but what it really confirmed for us is that our counselors where really stretched very thin, doing an assortment of work.”

That front line support system isn’t always available. Indiana has one of the lowest rates of counselors per students in the nation says Indiana Youth Institute (IYI) President and CEO Tami Silverman.

“When you think about that, one individual counselor trying to work with a caseload of 500 students it’s overwhelming,” says Silverman.

The IYI helps to coordinate the Lilly Endowment grants that went out to 57 Indiana schools this year. The foundation has committed nearly 30 million over five years to close the gap that prevents counselors from providing the support students need.

Silverman says in her discussions, one issue stood out.

“The schools have said they need help in the area of social and emotional needs of students,” Silverman says. “Those needs have grown so complex over the past few year and they acknowledge that the wellbeing of their students is foundational to all other work.”

Kids Count data finds close to 30 percent of Hoosier high school students report feeling sad or hopeless for two weeks or more.

These may stem from a range of issues like anxiety to succeed, social media pressures, bullying, poverty or substance use disorders.

Silverman says the Lilly counseling grants have already made an impact. “The change has already happened in that many of the schools hadn’t had robust conversations about what does comprehensive counseling look like. “

Even more impactful maybe are the conversations that have started between young Hoosiers. Both Fishers high schools have stigma free clubs says Brooke Lawson.

“Those students have the goal of creating a community in their school that is open to talking about mental illness and mental health,” says Lawson. “That people aren’t afraid to reach out and say I’m struggling with anxiety right now and need some help.”

This year Hamilton Southeastern Schools received the Lilly Endowment’s largest gift, $2.8 million, due to their size. They plan to use part of the money to implement a comprehensive counseling model.