In the beginning months of the pandemic, Siler City Elementary School Counselor Teresa Meadows remembers scrambling to find ways to check in with students without having designated times to see them in a school building.
Counselors eventually used virtual platforms, like Seesaw and Google Classroom, to check in with students once a week, as opposed to visiting classrooms or hosting students in their offices.
“That made our job more difficult in some ways,” Meadows said, “and much more time consuming.”
Now, with Chatham County Schools students back at in-person learning full-time, counseling services more closely resemble how they looked before COVID-19.
Still, with increased mental health challenges wrought by and throughout the pandemic, things aren’t back to normal.
“When we have families coming from all different kinds of situations and backgrounds, it’s just hard to figure out, you know, what is the need?” Meadows said. “And how can we meet the need?”
Teaching about and supporting mental health is just one piece of the job of school counselors, who primarily support social emotional development, cognitive development and career development in schools.
At CCS, the district is working to address rising mental health needs in schools by increasing its contracted mental health services for in-school therapy and by hiring two additional counselors and three social workers — supported by federal COVID-19 relief funding. The district will continue its contract with Renaissance Wellness Services, a Pittsboro clinic it has partnered with since 2017, for $57,811.
Eight of Renaissance’s 19 employees work with CCS students, Renaissance owner and Clinical Director Karen Barbee told the News + Record. The clinic works with about 150 CCS students who typically meet with therapists once a week at their base school during a non-core class.
“It’s definitely the accessibility and the consistency of the service,” Barbee said of the appeal of in-person therapy to students and parents.
Every year since 2017, the services offered at CCS have increased, she said. She doesn’t expect that will be different this year, particularly in light of the pandemic.
“One of the big things that we’re preparing for currently is just an uptick in referrals,” Barbee said. “I do believe that we are going to be inundated with referrals. And it’s not a bad thing — I think that it could really be an amazing thing. Because as a whole, we need to be utilizing mental health services more.”
As a general practice, district counselors usually refer students to outside services if they meet with a student about the same thing more than five or six times.
“That’s a loose guideline that we use,” Meadows said, “so that we know their needs are being met.”
Beyond meeting one-on-one with students, counselors address social emotional and mental health in a variety of ways. Counselors provide classroom guidance by speaking to classes about various mental health topics and by providing training for teachers regarding strategies for things like conflict management and caring for grieving or traumatized students.
“Then when we know that we’re going to have some kids who need more,” Meadows said. “So we meet with them in small groups, and then through individual settings. Of course, we also refer them out to mental health and school based services like Renaissance.”
Sandra Young, a counselor at Chatham Central and CCS’s lead high school counselor, said she emphasizes teaching students about stress and how to deal with it — particularly as they enter high school.
Even without the added stressors of the pandemic, she said the transition to high school often brings increased workloads and stress for many students.
“You’ve learned about stress in K-8, but when you get here, let’s talk about it a little bit more in depth,” she said. “Let’s talk about what are things that work? And what are things that don’t work for you? And then, how can we support each other?”
Such conversations are particularly important for students, Chatham School of Science and Engineering Counselor Jennifer Saylor said, because at that age, the brain is still developing.
Saylor is talking about the brain with 9th and 10th grade students this year, emphasizing how understanding your brain can better inform how you make decisions related to mental and emotional health.
“Mental health is a huge topic and tremendously important,” Saylor said. “I think of it as breathing, you know, you’re breathing all the time. And your mental health is doing its thing all the time — so you need to attend to it.”
It should be the job of educators, she said, to help students feel safe and connected — because those are the environments in which learning is better able to happen.
“Here we are, in this pandemic, and a lot of students have experienced the loss of family members, or parents or family members who’ve had changes in their employment,” Saylor said. “There’s just been so many different shifts.”
That’s why she’s encouraged by the emphasis the district is placing on supporting students beyond just their academic needs. Just last week, Saylor attended a meeting with the district’s high school counselors, at which there was a large emphasis on social and emotional health.
“One positive thing through the pandemic,” Young said, “is that I think people are finally realizing that your mental health is of the same importance as your physical health.”
Reporter Hannah McClellan can be reached at hannah@ chathamnr.com or on Twitter at @HannerMcClellan.
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