The need for mental health services for students is on the rise and Jefferson County Schools is continuing to expand its services.
“People say kids can’t learn if they’re hungry or not sleeping, but kids can’t learn if they aren’t …
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“People say kids can’t learn if they’re hungry or not sleeping, but kids can’t learn if they aren’t making responsible decisions or self-management either,” said Jon Widmier, director of human services for Jeffco Schools. “It’s acknowledging that kids are going to go through hard times, and giving them the skill to deal with that.”
One way those needs are met are through a partnership with Jefferson Center for Mental Health. Fifty Jeffco schools currently have a JCMH prevention specialist, an in-house clinical mental health professional, or a combination of the two. The partnership started in 2010 with 18 schools.
In November, the Jeffco Board of Education approved continuing the partnership.
Last school year the district spent a little more than $500,000 through JCMH. This year, the amount is about $750,000 including $163,000 one-time funds that added nine positions. JCMH, a not-for-profit organization, helps cover some of the cost of the counselors that the school district uses, particularly for schools with a larger population of free and reduced lunch-qualified families.
Those nine positions added were social and emotional learning specialists, which is where a large emphasis is being placed. Social and emotional skills include self-management, self awareness, responsible decision-making and relationship skills.
Widmier explained that these social emotional learning specialists, employed by JCMH, have a different role than the traditional school counselor, which focuses more on academics and career preparation.
“It’s not just about academics anymore in school and we have to recognize that,” he said. “If we just teach academics then we’re leaving out a whole big part of students and their success.”
The 33 elementary schools who have JCMH prevention specialists on campus at least one day a week are working toward equipping students with the social and emotional skills to thrive in everyday life.
Those specialists go into classrooms and teach the Brain Wise curriculum, which focuses on giving kids the tools for conflict resolution and emotional regulation.
JCMH also provides clinical therapists to 35 schools.
“It’s very good work that school-based clinicians do,” said Amy Hanson, school services manager for JCMH.
Clinical therapists handle everything from prevention to intervention. Unlike traditional school-staffed counselors, Hanson said the JCMH school therapists “have the honor and privilege of digging a little deeper.”
Therapists work on traumas — little and big. Depression, anxiety, ADHD and adjustment to separation and divorce are some overall issues seen. Clinicians also work in partnership with the district around suicide risk assessments.
“It’s not this big overwhelming piece of business,” Hanson said of the suicide risks. “But when it does happen, you want to make sure you have the right resources and people in place to keep everyone safe.”
Jess Kelekian, a school-staffed counselor at Arvada K-8, said throughout her seven years at the school she has seen an increase in the need for mental health services for students.
“I think that because kids and adults are a little more willing to talk about it, we’re seeing a rise for need in mental health support,” Kelekian said. “When they have a barrier that gets in their way of learning, it makes it difficult for them to be successful. So mental health has become an important part of eduction.”
Arvada K-8 also receives prevention and clinical services from JCMH.
Most issues Kelekian sees students struggling with are things happening at home, such as divorce or separation, family members who have died or are in jail, family financial issues and health issues.
“We have learned how to cope and manage throughout our day, but kids don’t always have those coping skills that allow them to process what it is they’re going through,” Kelekian said, adding that’s why there is an emphasis on social and emotional support.
The biggest issue Kelekian sees students facing at school, however, is bullying — specifically cyberbullying.
“With the bullying, we have talk of suicide,” Kelekian said. “It’s unfortunate, but at the same time, we have tools to be really preventative of those things.”
Middle school is the most affeacted group of students for mental health needs in general.Widmier said. But there is a need to give kids coping skills as early as possible.
The $33 million mill levy override — which voters rejected in November — would have been an ongoing increase to the district’s tax revenue allowing the hiring more mental health staff. Specifically, it would have ensured a full time mental health employee at every elementary school in the district. Currently, each school has a part-time employee.
“That need doesn’t go away,” Widmier said. “It will continue to be an ask and as a district, we need to figure out how to do more with less and give those kids the skills the best we can. The question right now is how do we balance those needs with the other needs as a district when the funding stays the same.”
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