At the forefront of mental health

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

This 10-part series, a collaborative effort of the newspapers of Rust Publishing, NWIA, examines the myriad issues surrounding the mental health care crisis in Iowa. Reporters and editors from the Spencer Daily Reporter, Storm Lake Pilot-Tribune and Dickinson County News have contributed to the report.

Area school districts encounter diverse needs, share common goal of providing healthy emotional strategies

The issues presented by mental health concerns in area schools can be as different as each individual student and as diverse as each community represented by its students. With these diverse needs, challenges unique to each building within the Okoboji, Spencer, Spirit Lake and Storm Lakes school districts arise. There is, however, a common goal of assisting children as they navigate the emotional turmoil of youth and developing healthy coping strategies spanning into adulthood.

"If we are talking about the schools and mental health, we need to focus on how important that is," Storm Lake Schools therapist Shannon Williams said. "That is where they are spending most of their time. If we can reach the children and break some of these cycles, that will benefit the children and families as a whole. I think that has been a big learning experience for our community. We can meet these students where they are so they are moving into adulthood in a healthy way. The best place to deal with this is in the schools at a young age, but we can't do that without resources."

While each district approaches mental health needs within its student population differently, providing coordinated classroom support for teachers from guidance and/or mental health professionals is the first layer of assistance available to students and families who are struggling.

In Okoboji schools, each school has a teacher who devotes half of his or her time to providing support to at-risk students and all staff members are available to start the assessment process and address student needs as they arise. In Spencer Schools, on-site mental health workers Lynn Morris-Turner and Rachel Thyberg have been contracted through Seasons Center as an additional resource working with teachers and students. In Storm Lake Schools, school therapist and Plains Area Mental Health Center employee Shannon Williams works with struggling and high-need students upon referral from teachers and/or guidance counselors.

The Spirit Lake School District counseling team made of elementary guidance counselor Lori Thompson, middle school guidance counselor Jill Dielschneider and high school guidance counselor Natasha Nelson agreed there are no set patterns when identifying mental health concerns. The counselors work with staff members at each level monitoring concerns and providing support when needed. Once needs and resources have been identified, parents and parties within the school are contacted and appropriate educational accommodations are provided on an individual basis.

Some common strategies for maintaining emotional health and coping with stressors presented to students within area schools include ways to identify, process and express emotions in a healthy way, understanding the concept of self, methods of improving self esteem and learning to identify triggers which can be the start of emotional turmoil. Student stressors can range from traditional student issues such as grades and peer relationships to more severe, in-home problems like domestic violence and/or residual traumas.

"Everyone is so different, so as I think about specific students, I can tell stories of one young person who has some social anxiety, yet really wants to be involved and involved with certain activities and individuals that they haven't been before," Morris-Turner said. "I have other kids who feel fine socially, but they are carrying around some baggage from the past. It is so incredibly heavy that every once in a while they find themselves in overwhelming situations or making poor decisions. They don't want to continue on that path. It looks different to every kid."

Outside of those traditional anxieties, new stressors such as social media and concerns unique to populations within a community have caused each school, each district to address students needs as they are presented.

"Statistics are that one out of two students experience significant anxiety," Spencer High School Principal Elli Wiemers said. "To me this means that their anxiety gets in the way of their ability to be successful in school or even in their everyday life, including friendships.

She added, "What kids perceive as the opinions of their peers, and the ways those opinions are voiced are the most common stressors. Social media is brutal. Kids know how harsh social media can be, and yet they are drawn to it and cannot help themselves it seems. Their dependency on their cellphones and social media is incredible. Additionally, though, it's hard for kids to walk down the hallway or into a room where many people are gathered. Sometimes kids feel that people are watching them, looking at them, forming opinions, even when this may not be the case. Their perceptions become their reality."

"Because we have a large refugee population you have more students presenting with PTSD than you do nationally," Williams said. "We have a greater number of community members presenting with trauma problems that is the biggest difference. We are dealing with oppressed populations which means you will deal with more trauma. We have more intergenerational issues, and students living in poverty. If you have high stress or are dealing with trauma, your brain may not be working the way it is supposed to so you are going to make riskier and more unsafe decisions."

Area school teachers and officials consistently monitor students' mental health through daily communications between teachers, counselors, administration and staff paying close attention for common signs that a student may be in need. Universal signs such as social withdrawal and/or relationship changes exist throughout grade levels, but other signs are more specific to age groups. For older students, irregular attendance and/or lagging academic performance is often seen as a warning. For younger students, age-inappropriate actions and when a child becomes withdrawn are seen as indicators "because children's actions have meaning."

Some school mental health officials expressed the opinion that requests for services have been increasing in recent years, while others were unsure. Officials in the Okoboji, Spencer and Storm Lake school districts agreed students who do seek services seem to be seeking services more frequently, and officials in all four districts said awareness of what mental health is seems to be more widespread. Officials emphasized the importance of establishing trust as an essential part of reaching and assisting students.

"I believe the mental health concerns are increasing in number," Okoboji Elementary School counselor Carrie Stauss said. "I feel we do a good job of recognizing when a student is having a difficult time, and addressing how they are feeling in a timely manner. Students feel very comfortable coming in to talk to me about issues that fall under mental health concerns. In the time I have been at Okoboji Elementary School, the number of students reaching out for help has increased significantly. In my opinion, this is partly due to our increased awareness of the need to support students with mental health concerns, but also we have normalized the need to seek help when it comes to mental health concerns."

"We hope our students feel comfortable approaching a staff member if they have a concern with a family member's mental health," Okoboji Schools Student Services Director Justin Bouse said. "This is a delicate situation, however, as the student is coming to us in confidence and often doesn’t want us to reach out, especially when it may be a parent. There are times when outside agencies get involved before the family member may get the help he or she needs."

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