For kids, getting back to normal isn’t normal, said Susan Perkins, school guidance coordinator for Columbia Public Schools.
“We’ve been through a lot of trauma over the past couple of years and we’re still coming out of it,” Perkins said.
School counselors see anxiety and depression in students, including social anxiety and separation anxiety, she said. Mental health problems seen in college students are similar to those seen in society at large.
Some of the students’ problems predate the pandemic, and some have been exacerbated by the pandemic, Perkins said.
Children need stability and rely on adults to provide it, but adults are also on the move, she said.
“I think it’s more of generalized anxiety,” Perkins said. “We have gone through so much change. We have lived through a very unpredictable time in life.”
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When there is trauma, the body seeks safety, she said.
“Children look to adults,” Perkins said. “In recent years, adults haven’t had the answers.”
Support children’s mental health needs
The US Department of Education last week released a new resource for schools titled “Supporting the Social, Emotional, Behavioral and Mental Health Needs of Children and Students.”
It lists seven challenges and the corresponding recommendations.
To meet the challenge of increasing mental health needs and disparities in children, he lists the recommendation to “put the well-being of every child, educator and caregiver first.”
For the challenge of perceived stigma as a barrier to access, it lists a recommendation to improve mental health literacy to reduce stigma and other barriers.
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The challenge of fragmented delivery systems has the corresponding recommendation to establish an integrated framework to support educational, social, emotional and behavioral health for all.
Columbia Public Schools is ahead of most of these issues, Perkins said.
“CPA has always put the social and emotional well-being of students first,” said Perkins. “We have been very fortunate to support student mental health.
A comprehensive school guidance program has school counselors in all buildings to call attention to the social, emotional, academic and vocational needs of students.
In elementary and middle schools, there’s the Stage Two social and emotional learning program, Perkins said.
The weekly 30-minute lessons cover basic skills including active listening, dealing with strong feelings and bullying prevention, she said.
There are additional outreach counselors in secondary schools to provide individual and group counseling and crisis counseling, working with regular school counselors.
Community investment in children
In 2012, Boone County voters approved a quarter-cent sales tax, establishing the Boone County Children’s Services Fund and raising about $ 6.7 million per year for programs for children.
Community investment in children gives Boone County schools an edge over others when it comes to federal education agency recommendations, district spokeswoman Michelle Baumstark said.
“Columbia Public Schools is already implementing the seven recommendations as a school district,” Baumstark said. “Our community is much more advanced than the others because of the investment made in children’s mental health years ago:”
Perkins echoed the sentiment.
“We are very fortunate that our community supports the mental well-being of children,” said Perkins. “Some families are moving to Columbia because we are so resourceful.”
FACE noting a need for services
One of the programs funded by sales tax is the Family Access Center of Excellence, operated by the University of Missouri. It provides case management for families with children and links them to services.
In May, FACE officials announced an agreement with school districts to deploy 10 family intervention specialists to schools in Boone County. Six of them are in Colombia and four in other districts of Boone County.
“It’s something in the works ahead of COVID, but it’s timely,” Perkins said. “It’s a big help right now.”
In Colombia, intervention specialists are based in schools with the highest student needs, but available for all school buildings, Perkins said.
Family intervention specialists are also seeing anxiety in students and that many need a lot of help with emotional regulation, said Sandy Miller, supervisor of family intervention specialists.
“The mental health needs are great,” Miller said. “Anxiety is something that increases.”
Family intervention specialists receive consent from a child’s family, Miller said. Some families are more reluctant than others to participate in treatment, so the level of family involvement varies.
A school problem-solving team can determine if additional support is needed from a family intervention specialist, Miller said. Sometimes there are also emergency referrals.
“It’s a deeper level of support” that we provide, Miller said.
The specialists work with students at the school level, said Aaron Thompson, director of the School of Social Work at the University of Missouri and associate director of the Missouri Prevention Sciences Institute. At FACE, he is a Principal Investigator and Evaluation Consultant.
“They work with children to help them develop coping skills and give them the language to talk about these issues,” Thompson said.
Schools do important work, he said.
“Schools are on the front lines in dealing with a mental health crisis,” said Thompson.
He was afraid to paint a dark picture and guessed his use of the word “crisis”.
The first task was to hire high quality staff, Thompson said. Family intervention specialists are now establishing their workload.
Miller and Thompson both said Boone County was ahead of the state and the nation on many issues because of its publicly funded children’s services.
“I feel like Boone County is way ahead,” Miller said. “The simple fact of having this resource, this pot of money, is something that few communities have.
The Children’s Services Fund funds many important projects, Miller said.
“Everyone is grateful that this model exists,” said Thompson.
The approach is systemic and not just a service, he said.
It is not just schools, FACE or families that need to support children’s mental health. It requires churches, sports teams, clubs and organizations, Miller said.
“The community also has a role to play,” she said. “We are all in the same boat.”
The FACE team values partnering with schools, so they work as a team, Thompson said.
“Together we are making progress in building something really special,” said Thompson.