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IOWA: Schools have greater focus on mental health needs

July 1, 2019, Cherokee (IA) Chronicle Times: Schools at forefront for mental health care The issues presented by mental health concerns in area schools can be as different as each individual student and as diverse as each community represented by its students. With these diverse needs, challenges unique to each building arise within school districts such as Storm Lake, Okoboji, Spencer and Spirit Lake. There is, however, a common goal of assisting children navigate the emotional turmoil of youth and develop healthy coping strategies spanning into adulthood. ... While each district approaches mental health needs within its student population differently, providing coordinated classroom support for teachers from guidance and/or mental health professionals is the first layer of assistance available to students and families who are struggling. In Okoboji schools, each school has a teacher who devotes half of his or her time to providing support to at-risk students and all staff members are available to start the assessment process and address student needs as they arise. In Spencer Schools, on-site mental health workers Lynn Morris-Turner and Rachel Thyberg have been contracted through Seasons Center as an additional resource working with teachers and students. In Storm Lake Schools, school therapist and Plains Area Mental Health Center employee Shannon Williams works full-time with struggling and high-need students upon referral from teachers and/or guidance counselors.... Some common strategies for maintaining emotional health and coping with stressors presented to students within area schools include ways to identify, process and express emotions in a healthy way, understanding the concept of self, methods of improving self esteem and learning to identify triggers which can be the start of emotional turmoil. Student stressors can range from traditional student issues such as grades and peer relationships to more severe, in-home problems like domestic violence and/or residual traumas.... "Statistics are that one out of two students experience significant anxiety," Spencer High School Principal Elli Wiemers said. "To me this means that their anxiety gets in the way of their ability to be successful in school or even in their everyday life, including friendships.... Area school teachers and officials consistently monitor students’ mental health through daily communications between teachers, counselors, administration and staff paying close attention for common signs that a student may be in need. Universal signs such as social withdrawal and/or relationship changes exist throughout grade levels, but other signs are more specific to age groups. For older students, irregular attendance and/or lagging academic performance is often seen as a warning. For younger students, age-inappropriate actions and when a child becomes withdrawn are seen as indicators "because children's actions have meaning,” according to Williams. Some school mental health officials expressed the opinion that requests for services have been increasing in recent years, while others were unsure. ... "I believe the mental health concerns are increasing in number," Okoboji Elementary School Counselor Carrie Stauss said. "I feel we do a good job of recognizing when a student is having a difficult time, and addressing how they are feeling in a timely manner. Students feel very comfortable coming in to talk to me about issues that fall under mental health concerns. In the time I have been at Okoboji Elementary School, the number of students reaching out for help has increased significantly. In my opinion, this is partly due to our increased awareness of the need to support students with mental health concerns, but also we have normalized the need to seek help when it comes to mental health concerns." "We hope our students feel comfortable approaching a staff member if they have a concern with a family member’s mental health," Okoboji Schools Student Services Director Justin Bouse said. "This is a delicate situation, however, as the student is coming to us in confidence and often doesn’t want us to reach out, especially when it may be a parent. There are times when outside agencies get involved before the family member may get the help he or she needs."


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