With mental health needs of students increasing, BPS set to bring licensed therapist to high schools

LeAnne Bugay, Editor-in-Chief

Bellevue West has four guidance counselors who are responsible for all students’ academic, career, and social-emotional learning. Lynne Henkel is the freshman counselor with Melissa Minahan, Molly Moore, and Susan Polk dividing the other three classes by alphabetical order.

All four counselors work rigorously to provide students with tools and resources to help them navigate high school and plan for their futures.Their duties range from organizing AP tests and scheduling classes to offering college information and teaching coping skills.

“I don’t think anyone knows behind the scenes how much we’re doing besides meeting with students,” Moore said. “We’re trying to support students in all different areas.”

A major area of need that has been steadily growing over the past decade is the social-emotional learning aspect. The counselors regularly place “response,” or taking care of students in immediate crisis, at the top of their priorities.

When a student at school requires immediate response from a counselor, calming down the student, listening and understanding the situation, notifying the student’s parents, and providing them with outside resources can take up to a half day at times. This can leave the counselors with a line of students waiting, emails sitting unopened, missed phone calls, and daily tasks to be pushed off for later.

“It seems like we spend so much time now on mental health issues that we don’t get to check grades and check in with students as much as we would like to,” Polk said.

Minahan said the counselors work all day and often through their lunch to try to keep up with everything on their plate. But the rise in students’ need for mental health support isn’t the only factor causing the counseling staff to struggle for time.

According to school websites and data from the Nebraska Department of Education, West has the highest student to counselor ratio out of all 18 Omaha Metro Conference high schools, being about 417:1. The average in the conference is 308:1, with the second highest ratio being 363:1 at Papillion La-Vista High School. The American School Counselor Association recommends a ratio of 250:1.

“Based on our population and based off our recommendations by the people that study this stuff, we are not staffed adequately,” principal Kevin Rohlfs said.

The counselors said that not being able to follow up with kids after an incident or problem can lead students to possibly “fall through the cracks” and that it’s harder to establish relationships with kids the less often they meet.

“I almost think there needs to be a mental health person full time,” Moore said. “We aren’t therapists.”

Bellevue Public Schools is currently in the process of implementing a fiscally responsible way to provide a step towards the much needed mental health support.

Director of Student Support Services Kevin Mills has been working on a grant with CRCC (formerly Children’s Respite Care Center) that would bring in one licensed mental health therapist to serve both Bellevue high schools. In the partnership, BPS will provide office space and CRCC will employ the therapist.

CRCC is an Omaha-based non-profit that provides comprehensive care to children with a range of health/behavioral issues and their families. BPS will be involved in their School-Based Wellness Services, which started in Feb. 2018 at the three Millard Public high schools after CRCC noticed an increase in the need for mental health support for teenagers.

“The response has really been phenomenal in Millard,” CRCC’s Director of Therapy Services Kalisha Reed said.

The program places one of CRCC’s licensed mental health therapists in a school to provide that support and education.

A core job for the therapist is to conduct therapy appointments with referred students after parental consent and insurance approval. The therapist will work on problems such as depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, family issues, and various other mental health issues with referred students in therapy.

“It’s still a very collaborative effort with the families and with the parents,” Reed said. “However the parents are not missing so much work and the students are not missing a lot of ‘out of school’ time, but then they’re also able to still meet with a licensed mental health professional.”

Reed said that the therapist that will come to both Bellevue high schools will emphasize a strong focus on integration and collaboration with the schools. CRCC aims for students, staff, and administration to get to know the therapist and be able to have open communication and group work with them.

“One of the things we’ll do with these folks, that we talked to CRCC with, is they can do classroom presentations to talk about coping skills, suicide ideation, or whatever topic is needed that relates to mental health,” Mills said.

CRCC’s mental health therapist will also spend their time bringing mental health awareness and education to teachers on topics like trauma and mental health issue referrals. They will aim to attend events like registration nights, parent-teacher conferences, and the first day of school to further bring awareness of the new resources from CRCC.

Reed said that CRCC takes a strong priority in students’ privacy. The therapist is not allowed to discuss specific student cases with other staff members unless there is parental consent. Student referrals will also be discreet so as to not unintentionally embarrass kids.

CRCC encourages families that can’t afford their therapy services or have outstanding co-pays to reach out to them to discuss financial aid options.

“We never want payment or cost to be a factor for accessing mental health services,” Reed said.

CRCC is still in the interview phase for the therapist. Reed projects that the process will be completed in 4 to 5 weeks. Mills said that BPS is still hopeful that CRCC’s therapist can start soon.

“Mental health is finally coming into focus, I feel, for a lot of people in charge,” Polk said.

While students will soon start to have access to a licensed mental health professional at school, it won’t solve everything with their mental health and social-emotional needs.

“If we had an additional counselor we’d look at what that role would do,” Minahan said. “Do we want to just take a little bit off of everybody’s plate or would it make sense to relook at roles, and look at how to change our roles to better serve kids?”

Rohlfs said that administration and counseling have looked into restructuring how obligations and students are divided up between the four counselors in the past, but there will be no immediate changes. As for additional counseling staff, West will not be hiring any for the foreseeable future due to financial limitations.

“I think it’s on students and parents to talk to district administrators, school board members,” Polk said. “They are the ones who make these decisions. And what they hear from parents — that makes a huge difference to them.”