After seeing a rise in teen suicides over the past few years, Loudoun County’s elected leaders have made it clear that the schools need to do more to support and identify students who feel overwhelmed.
Armed with more funding for mental health professionals, the school system is rolling out two new initiatives that will debut with the start of the school year.
“Woefully understaffed” was how Superintendent Eric Williams described the Pupil Services Department earlier this year. That comment came as part of his request for the School Board to dedicate more money to hire psychologists, social workers, school counselors, and student assistance specialists.
The School Board granted that request, earmarking enough to hire five more psychologists, eight more social workers, eight more school counselors, two more supervisors and two more student assistance.
That gives administrators enough mental health professionals to create mental health support teams at every high school. And it means that, for the first time, every high school will be assigned a full-time social worker.
“This would build on existing efforts to promote mental wellness and resiliency, increase early detection, provide social and emotional support, and encourage help-seeking behavior and access to mental health treatment,” Williams said.
In a meeting this morning, administrators shared more details about those mental health support teams with School Board members on the Student Support and Services Committee.
John Lody, director of diagnostic and prevention services, said that one-fifth of Loudoun County students have a mental health condition and more than half of them never receive treatment. “So by de facto, schools often become the support for these students,” he said. “That’s why it’s important for us to be prepared to acknowledge the social and emotional needs of our students.”
The mental health support teams will be made up of psychologists, social workers, school counselors, and student assistance specialists. Lody compared the school counselors to primary care physicians and the others on the team as specialists. The school counselors will still be the primary contact for students, and psychologists, social workers and student assistance specialists will be on site for more intense situations.
His team is also working with the Ryan Bartel Foundation to establish Sources of Strength programs at every Loudoun County middle and high school. Woodgrove High School began training students with Sources of Strength last fall with funding from the foundation, named after a Woodgrove student who took his life in 2014.
The program is designed to equip young people to help one another cope with all that life throws at them long before suicide becomes an option.
Forty-one social workers and psychologists underwent the training in May, with the goal of training staff and about 50 students at nine high schools and two middle schools by the end of the calendar year, and eventually having the program in every secondary school.
“This is a real big lift for us to get it going quickly,” Lody said.
He didn’t initially expect to introduce the program to that many schools that quickly, but principals are eager to get started. “We’ve had a tremendous interest from schools because this—having a student-led effort—has been a missing part of a lot of our programming.”
Suzie Bartel, Ryan’s mother who formed the foundation, discovered the Sources of Strength program as she researched ways to empower young people to help each other.
“So many programs focus on intervention at the time of crisis. That’s too late,” Bartel said. “If we develop in them the skills to get through the hard things, we’re not going to need intervention.”
Launching this new model is a team effort, with both private and public funding footing the bill. Sources of Strength’s initial startup training costs $5,000 per school, but Loudoun County Public Schools will implement it for slightly less because it is training its psychologists and social workers to serve as school-based trainers, Lody said. For the first six schools slated to get the program, the Ryan Bartel Foundation is covering the costs for three schools, funding from the Pupil Services Department’s budget is paying for two, and a donation from a private donor is paying for a sixth.
The six schools that will get the training first are: Trailside Middle School, and Heritage, John Champe, Riverside, Stone Bridge and Woodgrove high schools.
The Pupil Services Department is also putting on an event Saturday, Oct. 14, called Navigating the Path to Student Wellness. It will feature Institute of Child Development
Professor Ann Masten as its keynote speaker; she’ll discuss “resilient children, families and communities.” More about the event can be found at navigatethepath.com.
All of this is part of a push to identify students who are battling anxiety, stress, depression or other mental health concerns, and support and equip them to navigate those struggles, Lody said. A typical student may look like he or she have it all together, making good grades, balancing after-school activities and maintaining friends, but many are quietly dealing with anxiety or other stresses.
“This is not an unusual student,” he said. “We need to look beyond the academics to see what needs are present and help prepare them for life outside of the classroom.”