By Annika Schmidt
Amid youth mental health concerns, students in the Pikes Peak region have access to resources in schools that aim to provide support both inside and outside the classroom.
Mental health resources in some El Paso County districts have expanded to meet the growing demand for children and adolescents receiving support in school.
The Centers for Disease Control call mental health among young people a growing problem, with one in three students reporting persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness in 2019.
In Fountain-Fort Carson District 8 schools, there has been an increase in students needing mental health services due to the pandemic, according to director of mental health Lisa Zimprich.
The district’s “busy” staff of 50 mental health professionals, including counselors, psychologists and social workers, has grown in recent years, with greater availability for middle and secondary school students.
“We’ve probably added five or six mental health positions over the past few years just to be able to stay proactive with the services we provide,” Zimprich said. These professionals provide mental health support at all levels, and the district works with community partners, including the military, to bring therapists to schools.
During the final school year, District 8 elementary school students needed more support with emotional regulation and middle school students with social interactions and anxiety. Zimprich also said there has been a notable increase in high schoolers who need help with anxiety and feelings of depression.
In recent years, strategies have been introduced to help students with emotional rules and challenging life events. Suicide Signs and Sources of Strength are two programs for prevention efforts in District 8 schools.
Zimprich cited waiting times for mental health services as an area for improvement they are addressing by working with an outside agency starting this school year. Staff and parents will be connected to comprehensive mental health services based on insurance and preferences.
“Our hope is that students, families and staff will be able to access treatment faster than we have seen in recent years,” said Zimprich. “In recent years we have seen a significant increase in waiting lists and the amount of time people wait to get mental health service.”
Academy District 20 rolled out its Social Emotional Learning programs around 2015 after what spokeswoman Allison Cortez called a “group of suicides,” when about a dozen students committed suicide during the school year, Cortez wrote in an e -mail.
SEL programming for the Greater El Paso County District includes Riding the Waves to teach K-5 students healthy ways to cope with stress, how to ask for help, and how to recognize when others may need support. Grades 6-12 have Suicidal Signs for recognizing and responding to severe depressions or suicidal tendencies in oneself or others and Sources of Strength, a program that supports students through social networks with a focus on positive messaging.
RULER is also a system developed by Yale for all school levels that teaches students how to recognize, understand, label, express and regulate emotions. Maureen Lang, executive director for learning services for District 20, was honored in June for her work in implementing the systems approach to SEL.
“The programs… started small, but now they’re all very robust and across our district. We were very fortunate that when the pandemic hit, we already had solid support in place, ”Cortez said.
Cortez shared that longtime Parent Academies have shifted focus over the past five years to more social, emotional, and mental health media.
In recent years, virtual counseling services have been made available to students in response to the pandemic, and a summer counseling program was introduced in 2021.
District 49 has mental health professionals at both school and district levels available to address the mental health needs of its approximately 25,000 students, according to Jason White, community care coordinator in the district.
District 49’s multi-level support system is a lifesaver, White said, and allows schools to address more than one concern for a single student. White said there may be correlations between poor mental health and other academic, behavioral, or emotional struggles. If these correlations are made, White said there are multiple branches of support available to help students.
School support is driven by student data. White provided the example that if a student is struggling with mental health, professionals can look at test scores and respond accordingly. White said the district is working to make documentation more consistent and accessible across District 49 so that as students move from school to school, existing records and care plans can be followed.
Capturing Kids Hearts is a character-based program that provides a framework for student interaction in schools in District 49. White said school staff are proactive by instilling a sense of purpose in students about their academic endeavors and encouraging connections between students and colleagues, educators and administrators.
“The most important thing we’re doing for students’ mental health is building and connecting relationships with students,” White said. “Without that, none of our tactics would be bad. Relationships are first of all ”.
White said his team focused specifically on violence risk and suicide risk prevention, developing a process with their safety and security team to intervene and connect students with appropriate and qualified individuals.
“We also partner with community agencies and identify ways to reduce red tape to connect students or families with help,” White said, including references to therapy and other resources. “The directory is too large to be listed.”
White recognized the influence of the pandemic, sharing that younger students in the district need more support with social expectations and following directions in part due to limited socialization during pandemic-related closures.
However, White said social media is another significant influencer on students’ mental health in recent years. “There is a lot of value that students place on themselves from external evaluation,” she said.
Harrison District 2 made several recent changes to increase its support for student mental health, most recently partnering with Beacon Options Mental Health to create the Family Assistance Program, a hotline for resources.
Parents and caregivers who call 1-888-339-1025 can get help with the emotional, behavioral, social, educational, and home needs of their Harrison students from a qualified specialist.
Next school year, District 2 will also add a new department to all schools that will oversee their SEL curriculum and new Student Success Centers that have been piloted over the past school year. Each school will also have a full-time social worker in addition to psychologists and counselors.
The district collaborates with the Mindfulness and Positivity project to help students and staff adopt awareness in the classroom and beyond. They have connections with local therapists to support both students and parents.
The district uses the Colorado Crisis Services Talk and Text Line to connect students with community resources, including Pikes Peak Suicide Prevention, NAMI Colorado, and Inside Out Youth Services.
Broad district 3 it has also witnessed a growing demand for mental health despite having comprehensive programming for all school levels and proactively addressing a pre-pandemic need for additional mental health staff.
“We are seeing an increased need for mental health support,” said Lisa Humberd, executive director of District 3 Special Education Services.
District 3 schools have full-time social workers in nearly all of their schools and full-time counselors based on the number of students enrolled in each school.
The district offers Emotional Social Learning opportunities for students of all ages, including young people aged 18-21 in post-high school education programs.
Student programs aim to provide a variety of mental health support, including anger management, emotional identification, suicide prevention, as well as more focused guidance with the delivery of assignments or friendship groups, he said. Humberd.
To get professional mental health support for students, each school in the district has its own referral process. Mental health teams have weekly meetings to identify trends, which helps direct training for educational staff throughout the school year.
District 11 of Colorado Springs has community resources for a variety of mental health services, including crisis support, pain recovery, sobriety support, and addiction recovery listed on its website.
On-site consultants provide responsive services for individual or group counseling, crisis management and abandonment prevention, according to the website.
Within Mitchell High School there is a Peak Vista primary health care facility that offers health services, including mental health services such as on-site behavioral health workers and the opportunity to address psychological issues and life stressors.
The center serves students, staff and families not only from Mitchell High School, but also other district feeding schools and neighborhood residents.
The district is also hiring a new executive director to oversee the department coordinating mental health resources for students, according to a district spokesperson.