Photos by Hillary Ehlen & J. Alan Paul
This is the third and final article in a three-part series that has focused on some of the lesser-seen components of developing and maintaining a healthy workforce, including childcare, training and development, and mental health.
Imagine yourself in the following scenario: It’s Tuesday afternoon, and you receive a call from your child’s school telling you they’re struggling with their emotions and acting out in the classroom. What do you do?
For many parents in our community, this scenario is all too familiar. The emotional and mental health of their children not only impacts the well-being of their entire family but oftentimes their job, career options and productivity at work as well.
One in five kids in the U.S. shows signs or symptoms of a mental health disorder in a given year, which contributes to school reports of chronic absence, low achievement, disruptive behavior, and not graduating, all factors that impact their future career choices and, ultimately, our future workforce.
And yet most children — nearly 80 percent, in fact — who need mental health services won’t get them.
At United Way, we took action to change that at both West Fargo and Northern Cass Public Schools.
Student Wellness Facilitator Helping Students Now at West Fargo High
Here in North Dakota, one in four kids is struggling with a mental health issue, and nearly one in 10 students has attempted suicide. In response to the needs identified by our schools, last year, we made a new investment in the form of a student wellness facilitator at West Fargo Public Schools. Now that we are halfway through the school year, more than 100 West Fargo students have accessed the services, and school staff are seeing an impact.
“The student wellness facilitator (SWF) is an exciting addition to our system of supports for students,” says Chasity Odden Heide, a high school counselor at West Fargo High. “As a school counselor, I appreciate being able to walk down the hall to consult with our SWF, as it helps close the gap between identification of need and access to treatment.
“The biggest impact I’ve seen is on the entire family. Imagine getting a call from the school that your child is in crisis and having suicidal thoughts. As a parent or guardian, your mind is spinning. We know that navigating the mental health system can be difficult, especially when you want to attend to the immediate needs of your child. Our families have been relieved to know there is someone dedicated to helping them get help for their child.
“I truly wish our community could see the difference these dollars are making in the lives of our children and students.”
“The bottom line is that our students feel supported. When students bravely confront needing additional help, it’s a powerful experience to know they have an immediate additional person who is willing to come alongside them on their journey.”
Access to Mental Health Services Shouldn’t Be Dictated by Geography
For students and families at Northern Cass Schools in rural Hunter, North Dakota, a short counseling or therapy appointment is a 35-minute drive from the front door of their school, a barrier that many families were previously unable to overcome.
“Our location often makes it difficult for our students who struggle with mental health issues,” says Northern Cass Public Schools Superintendent Corey Steiner. “Parents who work in the metro area can potentially lose four hours of their day transporting their child to a single appointment, which undoubtedly can impact their ability to be successful during their work day.”
In fall 2017, we were able to announce an exciting partnership with the Burgum Foundation and the Northern Cass Public School District to bring a licensed therapist from the Village Family Service Center on site to the school once per week.
Ashley Krinke and Keira Oscarson are the two counselors for the Northern Cass Public School District, which has a K-12 student population of nearly 650 students.
“Each week, we are able to sit down with the mental health provider to discuss how we can best assist the students’ needs in our building, which is invaluable in our effort to educate and care for the whole child,” says Oscarson. “Because families are connected to us and the provider, we are bridging the communication gap that often exists between agencies and schools. We can start to incorporate tools and techniques in the classroom and best support students during the course of their school day, which was previously difficult when their mental health services took place 35 miles away.
“This fall, when we made phone calls to parents to tell them that their kids would now have access to mental health service right here on-site at the school, you could feel this sense of peace come over them.”
The Data Is Proving the Impact of the Investment
When it comes to investing donor dollars into new initiatives, we’re focused on measuring the impact the dollars are making and the faces of the students and families receiving the help.
The counselors at Northern Cass Schools are working with students and families to measure data on how many students receive services, along with their attendance, discipline referrals, classroom behaviors and mental wellness. This data is beginning to demonstrate that students are attending class more often and functioning better in class and at home.
While this kind of data can only give a snapshot of each student at a given time, it’s affirmation that our investment is undoubtedly better preparing our students today for a successful life and career down the road. Mental health is often an obstacle that prevents a student from graduating high school and pursuing college, training and a career path. Research shows that a student who does not graduate from high school is twice as likely to live in poverty throughout their life and more than 60 times more likely to be incarcerated.
When we look ahead to today’s students being our future workforce, we not only want to be supporting students so that they are successful but also so that they are equipped to contribute to the skilled workforce we need to see our regional business economy prosper and create a healthy, growing community.