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Central Indiana school districts expand mental health resources

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Posted at 5:06 PM, Aug 17, 2023

As students prepare for quizzes, reading and math problems, school districts are also focusing on helping them with other types of problems that have nothing to do with school.

At Northview Middle School in Washington Township, during class change time, school counselors use the opportunity to quickly touch base with students in the hallways.

Jennifer Dodson is one of those counselors.

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Dodson oversees 27 counselors, as the District Lead Counselor for Washington Township Schools.

"Some kids are just having a bad day," Dodson said, "We all have bad days, but some kids do need extra layers of support."

Dodson says data shows counselors are seeing more children these days, who have thoughts of suicidal ideation. She says the district is working on interventions to proactively address student's mental health and wellness needs.

Part of those interventions include reaching kids at a younger age.

New this year, Washington Township is using grant money from the State of Indiana to add two new counselors in elementary schools to work in tandem with school social workers.

"So the idea is we're not waiting until a student is in crisis," Dodson said, "We're not waiting until a kid's crying in our office or something terrible has happened."  

The grant also pays for professional development workshops for counselors and teachers. The counselors are trained to not only look for external indicators a child is having issues — things like tantrums and emotional outbursts — but they also to look for the warning signs in kids who handle things differently.

"The kids who can sometimes slip through the cracks are the kids who are what we call "internalizers." They might sink inside themselves," Dodson said.

"Internalizers," for instance, might show a sudden decline in their grades, poor attendance, and tardiness.

One counselor also has a sidekick, named Charlie.

Charlie is a therapy dog at Northview Middle School, who offers support and calm to students.

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In fact, Charlie has helped to diffuse a couple of tense situations, including breaking up a fight between students.

Wayne Township Director of Student Services Sherman Woodard says he has has noticed a change over the last ten years.

Woodard says his staff has seen a significant increase in the number of students dealing with anxiety, depression, and managing their emotions.

Woodard partly attributes the increase to the covid pandemic: students dealing with losing loved ones to the illness; a heightened concern about spreading the disease; also, the social aspect.

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"Our students were also at home all that time,' Woodward said, "School's a safe haven for a lot of our students. Some of them come here and they can be themselves, be with their peers. All of those types of social interactions were taken out of their lives during that time period, and I think that increased the anxiety and depression.

Woodard also believes cell phones and social media contribute to anxiety and mental health issues in students.

Ben Davis High School administrators are taking measures to address the growing need to nurture student's mental health.

They have created peace rooms, where students can go to meditate, pray or just enjoy quiet time.

Administrators have also increased the number of coaches for staff, so faculty has the training and resources to speak with students with mental health concerns.

BDHS is also trying the make the feel of the school smaller, while also creating a family-like environment.

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To do that, students remain with their teachers and peers for three years.

Additionally, Cummins Health has a contract with BDHS, providing licensed therapists and other mental health resources.

Students, however, need approval from their parents to attend therapy sessions.

The therapists work with grief, trauma, anxiety, depression, attention deficit, hyperactivity, self-harming behaviors, and trauma, among other conditions.

Ciera Brown is one of those therapists.

Brown told WRTV's Marc Mullins that she notices student are making the effort themselves to seek help.

"I think students are very comfortable advocating for themselves," Brown said, "It's really awesome."

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There was a two-month waiting list last year because counselors had so many students on their caseload.

An indication, more funding is needing for mental health resources in schools.

Woodard says schools are under-resourced nationally, when it comes to professional school counselors and mental health professionals.

"There's just studies that show an improvement into adult life and managing the mental health symptoms as they continue to grow," Brown said.

In January, Hamilton Southeastern Schools in Fishers received a $5,7 million federal grant from the U.S. Department of Education to hire more school counselors, psychologists and social workers for students in grades kindergarten through 12.

The district has a new mental health and school counselor coordinator, who will handle the search for those staffers.

The Noblesville Schools District has made a long list of enhancements, since a school shooting five years ago at Noblesville West Middle School.

Some of those enhancements include three extra counselors for the elementary school, student therapy groups on site, and a new partnership with Community Health to open access to mental health resources.