With roughly one-fifth of students showing mental health concerns, schools are taking more steps to help them cope

Reading, writing and math remain important for teachers, but local schools are dramatically increasing how much attention they pay to students’ coping skills, behavior and mental health.

Districts are adding counselors and mental health therapists for at-risk students while implementing school-wide behavior and decision-making programs for all students. One of those programs, Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, is mandated by the Ohio Department of Education.

“Student mental health is a growing concern,” Brookville Superintendent Tim Hopkins said. “We are implementing social and emotional curriculum to help students develop the personal tools to deal with these issues.”

Student mental health is a key factor in school safety, as students struggling to cope effectively with bullying and other social problems can, in some cases, lash out.

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Since at least the late 1990s, roughly 20 percent of children age 9-17 have exhibited some type of mental health concern, according to medical studies cited by ODE’s Health Care Support Toolkit. Half of those children, or 1 in 10 overall, had “significant functional impairment,” meaning the vast majority of classrooms are affected.

Mental health issues have existed for years for kids and families.

But some issues are increasing — Carroll High School Principal Matt Sableski cited a specific rise in anxiety and depression issues the past five years — and they’ve become much more of a classroom focus. The state’s new strategic plan calls for schools to focus on the “whole child,” not just academics.

Schools add staff, money

Many local schools reported increasing the number of counselors or mental health therapists they employ, or boosting existing contracts with agencies such as South Community and Samaritan Behavioral Health.

That trend goes across all kinds of schools – from urban, high-poverty districts (Dayton) to wealthy suburban districts (Centerville and Oakwood), as well as smaller, more rural schools (Miami East and Newton).

Research shows that students’ exposure to traumatic events (also called adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs) has an impact on both school performance and overall health. ACEs can include being a victim of abuse or neglect, witnessing domestic violence or having a family member jailed.

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Dayton Public Schools Superintendent Elizabeth Lolli said DPS will work this year with five specialists from the Montgomery County Educational Service Center to tackle “issues related to behavioral health and trauma.”

The Centerville school district is adding three more therapists this school year to address student health issues, and Kettering expanded its contract with South Community last year to add more mental health counselors.

“This has allowed the students to have counseling more often, and there is consistency with the counselor the students are seeing,” Kettering schools spokeswoman Kari Basson said, adding that the counselors became more integrated with each school’s team. “This addition of mental health services this past school year significantly increased this line item in our operating budget.”

Kids face many issues

While Kettering is serving more than 7,000 students, the Newton school district in Miami County has fewer than 700. But Superintendent Pat McBride said Newton added another three-day-a-week counselor to support an intervention staffer who works with students on mental health issues.

“We do have outside resources that we can call on to help with addiction issues, suicide prevention, family breakup issues, anger management, and a host of other issues,” McBride said.

While many view high school as the time when mental health issues such as suicidal thoughts start to happen, the National Alliance on Mental Illness said half of all lifetime cases of mental illness begin by age 14.

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The Huber Heights school district is adding social-emotional learning classes at its elementary schools this year, according to Superintendent Susan Gunnell. District spokesman Zack Frink said the course will help students to integrate skills, attitudes and behaviors so they can effectively handle challenges.

Kierre Dewberry, a senior at Dayton’s Thurgood Marshall High School, said students face all kinds of challenges that affect them at school.

“You don’t know what kids are going through at home; you don’t know what poverty or background they face, but everybody needs a friend,” he said. “I think it’s more about mental health now.”

Northmont schools spokeswoman Jenny Wood said her district also tries to listen when students need support, saying that “activities to encourage reaching out for help are regular, and initiatives to make sure everyone belongs are high priority.”

Variety of strategies

New Troy Superintendent Chris Piper said mental health needs “are growing in schools across the state,” adding that Troy has increased services for students and training for staff. Increased services in local schools take many forms, beyond just the heavy lifting of hiring more trained professionals.

Milton-Union gets outreach from its Council of Churches and partners with a local suicide prevention group called Free the Mind, Anchor the Soul. They also use the Freshman Focus program to connect new students with upper-class mentors.

The Warren County Career Center will have a licensed therapy dog visit campus multiple times this year. Bellbrook gives high school students “positive referrals” for good behavior and tries to build good habits via “character circles” in its youngest grades. Those fit into the Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) that all Ohio schools are required to implement.

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Veteran Superintendent Todd Rappold said Miami East schools use the Rachel’s Challenge program to encourage students to create a safe and inclusive climate on campus, while adding counselors to help students and parents dealing with stress and anxiety.

“At all ages and levels, our schools aim to be kind, caring, and supportive environments, places where our students can safely strive towards and achieve lofty and ambitious goals,” Rappold said.

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