Helping students with serious mental health matters can be a daunting task for school counselors who don't necessarily have the time or training to address such problems.
School districts often need to look to outside programs for the sort of counseling that may be needed to deal with anger management, drug or alcohol addiction and depression.
In the Omaha Public Schools, that outside help is available inside the schools through a program provided by the Methodist Hospital Foundation.
The foundation spends $1.3 million a year to supply the district with 15 licensed mental health practitioners called community counselors, who offer “in-depth therapeutic support that school counselors don't provide,” said Nancy Bond, the district's school counseling supervisor.
Such counseling is provided in different ways around the metropolitan area. Westside Community Schools, for example, is just beginning a partnership with Arbor Family Counseling to provide mental health services to the district's students.
In the Millard district, social workers link families to support services in the community, a district spokeswoman said. In the Council Bluffs district, a spokeswoman said, Alegent Creighton Health funds a full-time counselor who provides individual counseling to middle-school students.
The community counselors in OPS get office space in the district's middle and high schools. They also have offices in neighborhoods, mostly in churches, where they can meet with students of all grades and their families or provide marital or group counseling.
Their services are free to students and community members. The Methodist foundation pays the counselors' salaries.
School counselors are, “on a daily basis, providing personal and social support for kids,” Bond said. Community counselors, she said, can spend more time with students who need more intensive help.
One OPS high school sophomore is grateful for the counseling. The girl said the bullying she experienced in middle school escalated to the point that she became depressed and even suicidal. The community counselor, she said, has helped her deal with other students' negative comments, and her advice enabled her to make more friends to whom she can turn when stressed.
She and her mother spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the girl's fears of further harassment.
Before she started high school, the girl said, she worried it would be a repeat of her middle-school experience. At first, she didn't try to make any friends. She had driven some friends away, she said, by dwelling on how bad her life was and frequently complaining to them about it.
Over several sessions, she said, the counselor helped her realize she was making a fresh start with the move to high school. The counselor told her she deserved to surround herself with people who supported her.
By the middle of her freshman year, the girl said, “I started slowly getting more cheerful, happier ... just lighter, I guess. Before, I wore black all the time. I was very angry, depressed.
“I've gotten out of that low trench of letting things get to me.”
The girl's mom said the improvements have been noticeable. “She's so much more confident and articulate,” she said.
Steve Milliken, Westside's director of special services, said his district's leaders are excited about being able to offer free counseling to students.
The district's initial cost for the contract with Arbor will be $35,000, which will carry through the end of the school year, Milliken said. Services include student sessions with Arbor's counselors at their west Omaha office, 24-hour availability for consultations with district staff, training for district staff and a half-day each week when an Arbor counselor will be in one of the district's buildings.
“We've just seen a pretty substantial increase in the number of kids with pretty significant mental health issues that extend beyond our educational expertise,” Milliken said. “We seem to be dealing with more challenging behaviors at a younger age.”
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