More Connecticut students report feeling sad and hopeless and they are seeking help at school-based health clinics, as more students become aware of the services, counselors say.
Their problems range from bullying to family issues to anxiety.
As the national post-Newtown conversation about mental health issues and school security continues, advocates are pushing for more early intervention programs, such as the health clinics, inside schools.
“Securing buildings from the outside may keep somebody out, but it’s not helping somebody that is behind those doors,” said Shari Shapiro, the executive director of Kids in Crisis, a Fairfield County nonprofit that has an in-school counseling service called TeenTalk in six schools.
The percentage of teens who said they’ve attempted suicide has ranged between 6.7 and 12 percent for the last decade, according to the state’s bi-annual Youth Risk Behavior Survey. In the most recent survey, 27.2 percent of teens said they felt sad or hopeless everyday for two weeks or more.
“We’re not talking about just kids who are going to go out there and create this horrific situation,” Shapiro said. “We’re talking about kids that are struggling in the simplest ways.”
Several health centers have recently started to screen all patients – whether they are there for a sports physical or a headache – for behavioral health issues, clinic directors said.
The state legislature asked the Department of Children and Families to create a plan to focus on mental health needs of children after the Newtown school shooting. One goal of the Connecticut Children’s Behavioral Health Plan, published in October 2014, was to expand in-school services for mental and behavioral health.
“We are generally as a society, with mental health, completely reactive,” said Erin Patterson Janicek, the director of clinical services for the school-based health center program for the Child & Family Agency of Southeastern CT Inc. “The proactive is how we catch this stuff early.”
There are several established in-school mental health programs in Connecticut, which bring outside staff to schools.
The Connecticut Association of School Based Health Centers says the state Department of Public Health funds 92 clinics with both medical and mental health services in 22 communities in Connecticut, including New Haven, Hartford, Bridgeport, Waterbury, Stamford, New London and Bridgeport. Some have been around for more than 25 years.
Most schools also have school counselors and psychologists on staff. But that’s not enough, experts say.
“There aren’t enough services — before (Newtown) and now,” said Jill Holmes Brown, a licensed clinical social worker who directs the School Based Health Center Program in East Hartford schools, run by Integrated Health Services, Inc.
“There has been a significant increase in the number of students and the severity of what we’re seeing,” Holmes Brown said.
In East Hartford, Holmes Brown said the clinics have seen an increase in the number of behavioral health visits each year — and now the visits make up 57 percent of all cases. The clinics also provide medical and dental services to students.
In the New London area, 48 percent of the visits to the health centers were for mental or behavioral needs in 2013-14, roughly a15 percent increase from previous years, according to JoAnn Eaccarino, associate director of school-based programs for the Child & Family Agency of Southeastern CT Inc., which runs 18 school-based health centers in New London county.
Across the state, other agencies are reporting more need as well. TeenTalk will launch its seventh school program – at a middle school in Greenwich – in the fall, according to Shapiro. TeenTalk saw 630 students in 2,838 individual sessions in 2013-14, according to data from Kids in Crisis. That’s up from 553 students the previous year.
Pam Standfest, a licensed clinical social worker at East Hartford High School, said she has also seen an increase in serious cases that required referrals to hospitals or more intensive treatment. Last year she had about five referrals for self-injurious or suicidal behaviors.
At one New London elementary school, the skills built through counseling helped one student deal with an allergic reaction in school recently, said Patterson Janicek.
“While the EMT was examining her, her heart rate came down, and she was able to calm herself down,” Patterson Janicek said. “It’s one of those stories of how the medical and mental health pieces interact and how important they are together.”
Patterson Janicek said the stress management also helps children with asthma differentiate between symptoms of an attack and symptoms of anxiety, and work through either type of incident.
Alex Strevel and his sister, Kayla Strevel, attend East Hartford High School and have struggled with family crises and bullying in school. After a falling out with their father and their parents’ divorce, the siblings each had personal distress.
Alex dropped out of school his sophomore year, missing 65 days before he finally returned. Kayla struggled with her body image and bullying throughout middle school and her first two years of high school, and said she contemplated “giving up.”
They each found their way to the school-based health clinics in East Hartford schools. Now each one has weekly appointments with Standfest.
“If it wasn’t for the health center, I probably wouldn’t be here, honestly,” said Alex, 17, who is now looking forward to graduating in June and studying art and music in college.
Kayla has had her own progression to confidence and coping skills. The last time another student made fun of her weight, Kayla said she was able to handle the insult by thinking of her meetings with Standfest.
“I’ve been thinking differently, and thinking better about myself. At first I thought no one could love me,” said Kayla.
Their stories illustrate one of the arguments for mental health services: healthy students are more likely to do well in school and graduate.
“There is growing evidence that students with behavioral health needs have higher rates of academic failure and also are subject to high rates of ‘exclusionary discipline,’ [such as arrest, expulsion, suspension],” the DCF report states.
Holmes Brown said having the mental health services available in schools helps reduce the stigma of seeking help. It also opens more opportunities to students to get help, as they don’t have to leave the building to do so.
“It teaches kids from kindergarten up to advocate for themselves with health care,” Standfest said.
“Through doing that, we have picked up kids you might never pick up before,” Eaccarino said. “They’re sort of doing OK in school, they’re not getting in trouble, but they’re really troubled.
“By catching these kids early and getting them into services early, we feel we’re doing a good thing.”