Five months ago, Loudoun County first introduced mental health teams to some of its schools with a goal of placing similar teams at every public middle and high school in the county.
Checking in halfway through the school year, John Lody, the division’s director of diagnostic and prevention services, said the effort was been time and money well spent. Coupled with a national program called Sources of Strength, students are learning how to help one another cope with all that life throws at them long before suicide becomes an option.
“This is a way to build better connections and actually identify and build sources of strength,” Lody said. “This is very much an upstream approach to prevent future problems.”
He gave the report to the Joint Board of Supervisors/School Board Committee meeting Wednesday. He told the supervisors and School Board members 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.”
One of those is the creation of mental health teams, made up of psychologists, social workers, school counselors, and student assistance specialists. Right now, 10 out of the county’s 15 high schools and two of the 16 middle schools have mental health teams, and the goal is to have them in every secondary school by next year.
Every high school now has an assigned psychologist and social worker, and the counselor-to-student ratio has been lowered from 350 students to one, to 300 students to one.
Lody also pointed to a seminar series that reached 815 parents, 97 percent of whom said the training provided them with new information. It covered topics such as building resiliency in teens, how to use restorative language to build family relationships, and general suicide prevention.
Lody’s staff is also working with the Ryan Bartel Foundation to establish Sources of Strength programs at every Loudoun County middle and high school. They identify five to 10 adults at every school to provide guidance, support and mentorship to students who run the program. They also identify about 50 students who are representative of the various cliques and groups in the school community.
“They work together to spread hope, health and strength through natural one-on-one actions, classroom presentations during Advisory, and large school wide campaigns and activities that are meant to resonate and reach all students,” Lody said.
During the meeting, Superintendent Eric Williams also gave the supervisors—who determine the tax rate each year—a heads up that he and the School Board are asking for more money to expand the mental health teams into every one of the middle schools. The School Board’s budget dedicates $3.2 million to hire a total of 17 more school counselors, seven more social workers, and seven more psychologists.
Lody’s presentation had a critic among the supervisors.
County Chairwoman Phyllis Randall (D-At Large), who is a mental health therapist who focuses on substance abuse, said it was clear the schools take mental health concerns among their students seriously, but the presentation didn’t make it clear what they’re doing to combat it. She particularly had a problem with the PowerPoint presentation, which she said was not written with the general public in mind.
It touched on three tiers of support for students: one that provides preventative social-emotional support to all students; a second tier that provides students identified as needing more support with group counseling and classroom instruction; and a third tier for fewer students that provides individual counseling, with potentially referring students to mental health professional outside of the schools.
“You are not going to find anyone who wants more mental health support in the schools than I do,” she said. “I think a lot of people don’t understand the crisis in our schools—the suicides, mental health issues, substance abuse. If we’re going to campaign and fight hard for these positions, we have to be as clear as possible so we can justify the cost.”
“Right now, the presentation does not do that,” she added. “You all are doing so much more than your slides indicate.”
Williams said that she, and the rest of the supervisors, will be provided more details as part of the School Board’s budget presentation, which took place after the joint committee meeting. And his staff is continuing to work on getting more feedback about the mental health teams, which they will share with the public.
“Part of our continued progress is to get that data,” he said, “but the initial snapshot is very positive.”
Lody’s presentation noted that, in a survey to staff members at schools that have the mental health teams, 99.3 percent said it is beneficial to have a full-time school psychologist and a full-time social worker on campus, which is a first for Loudoun’s high schools.