Part 2–School-Based Mental Health by Christina Karmecy
Editor’s Comment: This is the second of a two part series on Mental Health in Schools. Visit the archives for Part 1-Mental Health Issues in School.
The next steps were very logistical. South Side Area School District is slightly unique in that we are a one campus school. Our students and staff can easily walk between buildings, which allowed us to create one main office for school-based services, rather than three. We decided to hub WPPC in our elementary building, although counselors would also have the ability to run sessions in private high school and middle school rooms if necessary. We also had to work out security, as there would be a larger volume of students leaving class and crossing buildings. There is no cost to the school for WPPC to provide services, they simply needed a private room, a phone, and a locked filing cabinet.
The student participation process was our next focus. We had to answer questions such as “What would the referral process look like?” and “How does our in-school services, such as SAP, fit into the WPPC equation?” as well as “What exact services will our site-based program provide to the students and their families?” We also needed to organize whether the facility would be able to see clients throughout the summer to help with continuity of care. Even though WPPC is housed in our school building, they are still just one mental health provider option in our county.
Many times our students are referred to mental health services through SAP, and this has not changed. Although, there are students who are not a SAP student and have already been receiving services prior to our agreement with WPPC, and so students may be receiving services who are not on our SAP roster. The site supervisor of WPPC does sit on our SAP team, which helps in communication and quality of care for all potential and participating WPPC students.
Our WPPC office is called The Positive Steps Wellness Center (PSWC). PSWC provides our students and families all the services they would offer at their main office in Beaver, Pa. Students can receive individual therapy, group counseling, as well as family therapy. The PSWC is paid through a family’s medical insurance, whether they are on a major medical plan or Medicaid. If it is determined that a child is in need of medication management, the staff can also help a family schedule an appointment with a WPPC psychiatrist. It has also been determined that the PSWC will remain open throughout the entire year, including summers.
After waiting for a few months to receive the appropriate licenses, PSWC opened their doors to students in January. The student and family participation has surpassed our expectations. Even though this is not WPPC’s first school-based site, the services are still new to South Side. We are always evaluating the process and program, and taking in feedback from our faculty and staff to make the system better. Our faculty received information about the program during meetings beginning at the start of the school year and through additional paperwork distribution, although living with the system is always different than just hearing and talking about it.
When a student is referred to PSWC a packet, developed by WPPC, is sent home to the student’s parents or guardians. The paperwork includes a welcome letter, permission to evaluate, a consent to release information, an informed consent, and paperwork answering frequently asked questions. When this paperwork is signed and returned, our site supervisor is able to contact the family and schedule them for an intake. The signed paperwork does not agree to services. If a family ultimately decides to participate, the site supervisor matches the student with a therapist that meets their insurance requirements.
The site supervisor is in-charge of connecting students with appropriate therapists, as well as scheduling appointments. There is a certain amount of flexibility in student scheduling. Typically a student meets with a certain therapist on a designated day they are on site. If our site supervisor calls a classroom for a student, and they are in the middle of an important lesson or test, the session can usually be pushed back without problem. Students are able to get the most out of their therapy appointments and their classroom lessons with this system. If a child needed to travel to attend a session, it would require him or her to be absent at least half of the school day as a result of our rural school location. Now, students miss at most an hour of their day, and parents do not need to be responsible for any transportation.
One of the best outcomes of the PSWC partnership is the increased communication amongst parents, the school, and the therapists. In years past a Release of Information needed to be signed and faxed to outside providers so that information can be shared between the school and therapist. This process was inefficient and communication seemed to only be shared during moments of crisis. When families decide to participate in PSWC a Release of Information is signed that enables all pertinent staff including the student’s counselor, teachers, nurse, or principal to share and receive information from the therapist. This partnership is essential to treatment and progress. A student’s progress is always monitored, and teachers are able to consistently receive support and behavioral recommendations for their students.
Now that we have PSWC, I do not know how we functioned without it. I see students and families receiving care who would have faced so many barriers if our school did not partner with WPPC. The site-based mental health system completes the school system puzzle. Students and families are receiving the support they need to push through times of hardship and transition in order for their children to experience growth, continue to learn, and create lives post South Side. Every day we are learning to use the system to its fullest potential. PSWC is here to meet the needs of our students and families, so as the years pass and needs change, our system can continually adapt and provide the care needed for students to meet our schools’ vision and mission. The mission of South Side Area School District is to develop the skills and knowledge necessary for students to achieve in an ever-changing world by supporting and empowering them through community involvement, teaching excellence and district-wide support and collaboration. I know now, this is exactly what we are doing for our students and families.
Christina Karmecy M.Ed., NCC
South Side Elementary School