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DeForest, WI: District served by 10 mental health therapists; "serving more schools"

Dec 6, 2022, DeForest (WI) Times Tribune: Collaboration with Waunakee psychotherapists providing DeForest students with increased access to mental health services School district breaking down barriers to psychotherapy

If DeForest Area School District parents needed any proof that the mental health struggles of their children are on the rise, they need only look to the Psychotherapy Center of Waunakee.

The center opened in February 2020 and has seen its calling shift significantly in the direction of student mental health services. The center recently hired its 10th therapist,

versus three therapists this time last year.

“We are not done growing,” co-owner John Weiss told the Times-Tribune. “We realized this is becoming more and more a part of our clinic. We are at a point that all of our new hires are school-based therapists.”

Hiring more therapists not only means serving more schools, but also finding more success, Weiss said. A key component for success in therapy is when the students feel their therapist is a fit for them and they bond. “Whether or not the kid feels safe and heard is far and away the most important piece of the process, a kid can tell if you are being genuine with them,” he said.

While the clinicians at the center could not have predicted the significant mental health impacts of the pandemic, they were nevertheless prepared for it.

Co-owners John Weiss and Melissa Olsen had previously worked together at Oregon Mental Health Services, where they used a school-based model for mental health services and were given the autonomy to develop their own program within the Oregon School District.

Melissa Olsen and John Weiss recently hired a 10th therapist since opening the Psychotherapy Center of Waunakee in 2020. About half of the caseloads are in area school district’s now, as opposed to 15% when the practice opened.

While they had already been looking to offer services in area schools when they opened their doors in early 2020, they did not know how in-demand those services would become over the past two years.

The center is now working in eight area school districts. In each district, it forms a memorandum of understanding and works directly with student services staff including guidance counselors and school psychologists, who help identify which students may be helped by mental health services….

The DeForest school district began partnering with the center at the start of the 2020-21 school year.

So far this school year, there have been 38 students who have been referred who are now at various stages of intake or receiving services, and there are also 25 students who were referred in the last school year who are still being seen, according to DeForest Area School District Director of Student Services Sara Totten….

“We have our own school counselors, social workers, and psychologists, but sometimes student needs go beyond the scope of them,” she said. “Typically with students who are seeing our services staff—if our staff are noticing their needs going above and beyond what we can provide, we potentially do a referral or call the parents.”

There is no charge to the school districts. The services are typically funded through the insurance of the parents of the students being seen. In cases where parents don’t have insurance, are in a high-deductible plan, or out-of-network, the Psychotherapy Center of Waunakee provides its services pro bono….

Elementary students more typically exhibit behavioral issues such as separation anxiety and attention deficiency, while middle schoolers more often struggle with identity issues, self-consciousness, and worrying about fitting in. At the high school level, depression and trauma may begin to emerge, stemming from relationships with peers and family members as well as academic pressure, and anxiety over uncertainty about what’s coming next after high school. It’s at the high school level that thoughts of self-harm and suicide typically begin to emerge.

There are also differences in how signs of these issues are exhibited at different ages.

Typically whereas a high schooler can express their need for help verbally, at the elementary and middle school level, the communication is more through acting-out behaviors such as being a distraction in the classroom, or not attending school….

“Sensory regulation or emotional regulation have been more prominent issues since the pandemic,” Totten said. “One of our largest needs is that regulation piece. We have done a lot to add breaks throughout the day for kids, provide universal social-emotional learning at every level for all kids, offer more specialized groups, and get staff trained in dialectical behavioral therapy.”…

Melissa Olsen and John Weiss recently hired a 10th therapist since opening the Psychotherapy Center of Waunakee in 2020. About half of the caseloads are in area school district’s now, as opposed to 15% when the practice opened.


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