This article is made possible by a partnership with the Marion County Commission on Youth. Indy with Kids is proud to support the work of MCCOY and help communicate information that is important for the youth of our community.
Written by Jacie Farris
As our society works to erase the stigma around mental health disorders, many students could benefit by having more access to counselors, social workers, and mental health professionals.
Christy Gauss, a school mental health facilitator for the Indiana School Mental Health Initiative at Indiana University, said that there is currently no accurate data about the number of schools that have mental health professionals available for students.
“This information and data is something our state has needed and there have been advocacy efforts to collect this for some time now,” said Gauss. “It is part of why the Student Services Coalition was created and would add school psychologists and nurses to this. During the last legislative session, a bill was passed in the special session that called for DOE to conduct an assessment.”
Indiana Code outlines many of the rules regarding school counselors and other supportive faculty in school settings. It should be noted that there are significant differences between guidance counselors and mental health professionals. Gauss believes there is a need to “differentiate roles and explain expertise and the need for all [of these professionals]…. The term “counselor” in Indiana is used as a catch-all [for social workers, mental health counselors inside and outside of schools, and guidance counselors]. This has caused much confusion.”
According to the Indiana School Counselor Association, the ideal caseload is 250 students per school counselor. Unfortunately, Gauss says that many of these professionals are often bogged down by administrative work.
According to Allen Hill, Jr., a school counselor and the executive director of the Indiana School Counselor Association, counselors come highly trained to work with students on a variety of issues, including applying academic success strategies, managing emotions and interpersonal skills, and looking at postsecondary options. School counselors earn master’s degrees and licenses that allow them to with with students from kindergarten through 12th grade, and they also meet “state-specific non-academic training requirements [such as suicide prevention], certification in CPR, the automated external defibrillator, and the Heimlich Maneuver,” said Hill.
Lori Desautels, an assistant professor at Butler University who prepares students to work with kids on a neuroscientific level, acknowledges that many traditional counselors and social workers in schools focus on career readiness and talk therapy. She would like to see a few changes in how adults counsel youth in general.
“We hope it will evolve into a more sensory approach, because we know that mental health or mental illness is not just about the brain; it’s held in the body,” said Desautels. “Any time you use breathing, movement, or sensory stimulation, all of those strategies that calm the nervous system, are beneficial.”
Desautels also believes that counseling can play a part in prevention work. She believes our society will see positive results “if we can provide children and adolescents the tools to self-regulate [and] to emotionally regulate, and [if] we give them the opportunity to learn how to breathe deeply, to tune into their triggers, or to have three coping strategies that they can turn to when they begin to feel anxious or begin to feel that negative emotion.”
She continued, saying “It’s so important that these are procedures that we teach ahead of time so that if there is a crisis or if there is an experience or occurrence that throws us, then we’ve got the tools within us to address those adversities.”
For her part, Gauss was called in to support Noblesville School District and Hamilton Southeastern School District after both suffered violent crises. She believes that mental health professionals can help prevent tragedies by thinking through responses and having protocols, processes, and resources available.
“In HSE in particular, they have a mental health coordinator at the district level and strong community efforts and partnerships that made response a beautiful thing to observe. The teachers…also had their own needs and wellness met, so they could meet students’ needs and things were in place…that made the healing much more effective. This was because they have support from the district coordinator and student support staff (counselors and social workers) and community mental health professionals.”
While there are many details about mental health in the school systems being worked out at the state and national levels, it is important for parents and caregivers to do their part to encourage good mental health in their young ones.
Desautels recommends that adults take the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) survey. This study has shown that children or adolescents with four or more “ACEs” are 32.5 times more likely to have academic and behavioral challenges. Also, those with higher ACE scores show a higher correlation with a variety of health problems.
Desautels says that taking the ACEs survey can help parents learn more about mental health issues and think more critically about their parenting approaches.
“Emotions are contagious, and just because we are parents, or we are educators, or we work with students, we still have our own triggers. As a mom, if I had known this when I was raising my three children, I would have parented differently. I would have been very intentional about making sure I was calm and regulated before I disciplined, and I would have provided my three children the time they needed to regulate and to get calm before we delved into a difficult topic.”
For interested individuals, the following resources have also been recommended: