Want Students to Achieve Academically? Provide Mental Health Services

Jan 19, 2016

Students (and program coordinator Elizabeth Brunello) at Sherman High School in Boone pose for photo during an after-school leadership program. Although Sherman does not have a school therapist, the students have a good relationship with their school counselor and say they feel comfortable going to her for help.
Credit Kara Lofton / WVPB

Of the 718 public schools in West Virginia, 129 have school-based health centers (although note that some elementary/middle or middle/high schools share a center). Just over 30 percent of those, including Riverside High School in Belle, have mental health services.

“I think it’s [the mental health services] a good thing because a lot of teenagers struggle with depression or something wrong with them - they think that - especially in adolescence, the way the brain develops and all that stuff,” said Lillian Steel-Thomas, a senior at Riverside.

Steel-Thomas has had, as she calls it, “a tough life.” Over the past 18 years, she has lived with every relative who would take her in. She has also attended six or seven different schools. Steel-Thomas is currently living with her boyfriend’s parents – the most stable situation, she said, she has had in a while.

“Most of the problems they end up going away after you get older, but sometimes they don’t and getting help young helps you not have all kinds of horrible issues when you grow up,” she said.

Steel-Thomas has been diagnosed with depression and anxiety. She is one of seven students I talked to from three schools who have similar challenges. Most said having a therapist available at school is invaluable. Two young women from Greenbrier East High School said they wish they had access to one (they actually do - they just didn’t know about it).

“For many, many years focus on academics – many school leaders didn’t see the relationship between mental health and academics,” said Barbara Brady, School Counseling Coordinator with the WV Department of Education. “There are many, many studies saying academics impact mental health and mental health impacts academics.”

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, one in five children ages 13-18 have or will have a serious mental health condition. West Virginia currently has very little data about the state’s childhood mental health and none that was publically available.

Riverside is Steel-Thomas’ second high school. The first did not have mental health services. I asked her if having mental health services available at school made any difference to her grades. The short answer? Absolutely.

“I have good grades now because I can study, but before I couldn’t because it wasn’t that great,” said Steel-Thomas. “Where I had bad grades they believed I wasn’t a good student or a good person and I told them I was having a horrible time, told them all kinds of personal things and they pretty much told me to my face that I was lying.”

Steel-Thomas failed all her classes that first year of high school except for the two that were graded based on “participation.” She said she thinks she was truant about half the time.

“I just didn’t feel like going to school anymore,” she said. “What’s the point of going if nobody cares? And my grades are bad anyway and it sucks being home, but at least I can go jogging or something.”

Being at Riverside, she said, is a world of difference. She feels more supported by both teachers and administrators who in turn, she said, seem to feel more supported by having referral services available on site.

The on-site services also mean she doesn’t have to leave school for appointments or make up hours of work. She just shows a teacher her appointment card, then heads down the hall to the clinic waiting room. It’s an envelop of support that for most of her life she hasn’t gotten from home.

Cases like Steel-Thomas’ seem like a success. But administrators like Brady are quick to point out that if schools are not creating an overall better environment for students, placing therapists in school will not be enough.

“It’s critical to have those universal preventions, those universal supports. Teaching all students the skills they need to succeed, teaching all students anger management skills, teaching all students conflict resolution s

kills, social skills, so on and so forth.”

The idea is to slowly change the way schools think about mental health and behavioral support. It’s not a one size fits all prescription. Schools in Cabell County have very different challenges than schools in McDowell. These schools need to have programs available that they can pick and choose from that work for their school at this time.

A complementary story, on the programs currently available to schools, will air Monday during West Virginia Morning.

Appalachia Health News is a project of West Virginia Public Broadcasting, with support from the Benedum Foundation.