Wake Up Expanded Campus Mental Health Services :: WRAL.com

The Wake County Public Schools system is expanding some mental health services to more schools, while school board members are urging the district to connect more resources with families.

Mental health issues have been on the rise in North Carolina and the United States for more than a decade, including among the nation’s youngest. Federal data shows rising rates of suicide and self-harm, and stresses from the COVID-19 pandemic have highlighted conversations about mental health and the lack of support systems.

Tuesday’s school board conversation took place just hours after Wendell Middle School announced it would have mental health counselors on campus in the coming days following the death of a student on campus that morning. Several board members expressed their concerns and support for the school community.

Last week, the state Board of Education sent a report to lawmakers that showed the state was not meeting the nationally recommended student ratios to support professionals, such as nurses, psychologists, counselors and social workers.

Earlier on Tuesday, state lawmakers received a report that showed differences in funding and hiring across the state.

The Wake County School System now offers in-school mental health services in 40 schools, served by 16 therapists, with plans to expand again soon. Last year, therapists provided 328 therapy sessions, with approximately six to 10 students serving each week at each of the 28 schools at the time in the program. Therapists move between schools.

Services are provided under contract with outside mental health agencies, Alliance Health.

On Tuesday, Wake County School Board members called the expansion of the new pilot a good thing, but they had many questions about whether the school system was doing enough to let families know its resources and get students from hospital to school.

Paul Koh, the district’s assistant superintendent of Student Support Services, said families must agree to Alliance Health to inform the school system that their child has been in hospital so the school can develop a transition plan.

Board member Karen Carter said she was concerned that some students did not hold transition meetings and was not sure that consent to release the information was the reason for this.

Board members urged the district to communicate the required process with the families.

Carter said mental health challenges threaten the students’ academic experience.

“You can’t get an education if there are barriers, and that’s a huge barrier,” Carter said.

Board member Heather Scott urged work with community groups, including churches, to spread awareness of mental health support and training.

The school system provides training for families, as well as for all school staff, in child mental health support and suicide risk education.

The district plans to expand its on-campus mental health services pilot program to 10 more schools before eventually expanding to all 197 district schools.

While the school system wants to get the word out about the services available, “we don’t want to go too far beyond our capacity,” Koh said. Expansion may take some time.

“There is a process of hiring enough agencies,” Koh said, adding that a labor shortage could make that more difficult. “People don’t jump at the opportunity to do this…there’s a lot of logistics on their part to make it economically worth their time.”

On-campus mental health services provided via contract differ from the types of support most schools hire internally to provide students. School psychologists and school counselors can provide mental health services but are often employed to do other things, such as evaluating special education or academic and career guidance.

Board member Christine Kushner noted that the so-called Leandro plan — a mostly unfunded agreement between state education officials and school systems that sued the state — would fund hundreds of support professionals in Wake County who can help with mental health care.

Kushner noted that the Gaggle pilot program — which is funded by the North Carolina General Assembly — attempts to monitor students’ mental health needs based on AI monitoring of students’ computer activity. Gaggle is the company that provides the service.

The beta programs “showed us that you can’t do that with technology,” Kushner said. “You can’t try to do things with algorithms. We need the adults in the building. The past two years have shown us the need. The state needs to step up…and it doesn’t do it from Jones Street, and it drives me crazy.”

On Tuesday morning, the General Assembly’s Joint Education Oversight Committee heard the findings of a report it requested last year on the number of school support professionals working in each school district and the source of funding for each.

School systems are still largely below the recommended numbers for these professionals, although some funding has recently been increased for more school psychologists.

Lawmakers discussed how to provide more services to students, to enable academic success.

“We don’t have enough mental health counseling in the state, unfortunately, schools are where you see results for kids who need it,” said Senator Gladys Robinson, D-Guilford.

Staffing at home is a challenge, because the private sector pays more than schools pay, Matthew Stover, director of Catawba County Schools, told lawmakers.

Several lawmakers asked Stover about contracting for services, rather than hiring, and about any barriers imposed by licensing rules.

Stover said alternate licensing pathways could be a workaround for any cases where North Carolina has more licensing requirements than state workers might come in.

But Stover said his district struggles to contract certain roles and prefers to hire people to work full-time on the school grounds. It is able to provide some telehealth services to students through contracts. But recently, he has had to hire school counselors who are not fully accredited.

Later this year, lawmakers will also receive an annual report on education departments’ mental health plans. The Wake County system will update its plan later this month.

Koh said Tuesday that these updates will show the area is focusing on increased referrals to Alliance Health and supportive advice provided by contractors.

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