"Gap” Found in Mental Health Services at East Lansing High School

Tuesday, December 12, 2017, 8:44 am
By: 
Karessa Wheeler

Above: East Lansing High senior Sabria Alshimary exchanges a fist bump with Trustee Terah Chambers as a thank you for Sabria’s service on the Mental Health Advisory Committee.

The East Lansing Public Schools’ Mental Health Advisory Committee has discovered a gap in mental health services at East Lansing High School, resulting in a disconnect between the services that the school offers and the awareness of students about how and where to access those services.

Counselor and parent Jennifer Novello chaired the Committee, made up of teachers, administrators, staff, parents, students and mental health professionals who met between February and November this year. They were asked to review the policy and state guidelines, review District programming and recommend additional opportunities to provide students with mental health services. They reported their findings to the East Lansing Board of Education Monday night.

What they found is that East Lansing follows national trends with depression and suicidal thoughts and attempts. Suicide is the third leading cause death of children ages 8-13 and the second for 18-24 year-olds. In East Lansing, two students committed suicide in 2016.

“Even if we get away from suicide, one in every four or five is struggling with some type of depression, anxiety or trauma that impacts the way they show up to school every day,” Novello said.

“We want our students to be healthy. They need to be mentally well.”

The staff members on the committee visited every school in the District to “look at what is really happening in the buildings,” Novello said, and found that at every level, the schools are providing some amount of mental health services.

However, in general there are more services available at the elementary schools, while the need seems to be greater at the high school level, she said.

“At the high school level, we see a need for comprehensive, systematic, integrated, accessible approach to student services,” Novello said. “We are wondering about that gap. We want it to be something that is really understood. We know there are services, but there is a gap in the students feeling their needs are being met.”

Several students who served on the committee told the Board of Education their experiences with mental health and why they chose to work on the Committee.

Senior Sabria Alshimary said she volunteered for the Committee as a student advocate, hoping she could change the system.

“I was a student who struggled with mental health. It was being talked about but not being addressed,” Alshimary said.

Senior Tess Washburn had two friends attempt suicide in her first two years in high school.

“Thankfully both are still here with us and doing much better, but I have friends suffering from depression, anxiety and more,” Washburn said.

Currently the District has invested in a Second Step program to support social and emotional development of students in grades K-5. The program began at Donley Elementary in 2015 and was expanded to all elementary schools in 2016. The Committee is recommending that the program be expanded and implemented at the Middle School.

But that still doesn’t address the unmet needs in the high school.

“We know there are good people doing good work every day. We know services are available. We also know not all students are getting the services they need. We want to tend to that gap,” Novello said. “High school has the biggest need and middle schools sits in the middle. Some of the programming we can pull up from the elementary school, but high school seems to have the biggest needs.”

The Committee is suggesting more mental health professional development for all school employees, stating that “we don’t expect them to be counselors but expect them to have the tools they need to meet the needs they see every day.”

Claire Kopachik, senior at East Lansing High, said she was stuck in a cycle of depression that left her unable to stay focused in the classroom until one of her teachers recognized the problem and reached out to her. Sadly she found her peers did not have such positive experiences.

“Not all students receive aid from teachers who they find to be supportive,” she said. “When I asked other students what mental health services were available, the overwhelming response was ‘nothing.’ We need to increase the awareness of mental health.”

Novello said the committee also found that it was difficult to gather data that had been collected on students’ mental health and recommended that the District “make a centralized process to organize, understand, share and use the data to support the social and emotional well-being of ELPS students and school culture.”

“Then use that data to identify priorities for change,” she said.

Currently the Committee is working with Superintendent Dori Leyko about implementing more staff development. They hope to work with the Board of Education to implement policies to support the development and increase mental health services and awareness.

In response, the Board unanimously voted to continue the work of the advisory committee to dig deeper into the “gap” of services and awareness at the high school.

“The hope is that we keep closing that gap so every kid gets what they need, every time,” Novello said.