Lake Travis seeks mental health resources in schools
Austin American-Statesman - 4/11/2019
April 11-- Apr. 11--A year after results from a youth risk behavior survey showed Lake Travis students were feeling anxious, depressed and, at times, suicidal, the district is taking steps to improve its health and social emotional learning program to equip teachers, staff and students with better mental health tools.
The needs have changed for students over the last few years, so the district has to change as well, Jennifer Lyon, director of health and social emotional learning, said during a school board meeting in March.
The district will implement a three-year plan that includes staffing changes for campus counselors and also includes hiring a licensed clinical social worker, mental health training for staff and program initiatives to help students cope with losses ranging from friendship conflicts to college application rejections and to be resilient.
Hiring a districtwide social worker will help serve the needs of students who might be at risk for anxiety or depression, Lyon said. Through a referral process, the district's mental health professional will be able to recommend a long term solution that could include therapy and other programs that fit the needs of the student, Lyon said.
Expanding its Second Step program, which teaches coping and resilience skills, to reach elementary students through the second grade and now high school freshmen, will also help equip students and teachers with the skills to communicate and problem solve. The program is currently used in pre-kindergarten, kindergarten and all middle school classrooms.
Lyon said the district's counselors will also be trained on how to recognize signs of mental health problems such as anxiety and depression and be able to get students to someone who can help them.
Local therapist Sarah Cortez said she sees many students who are experiencing anxiety with transitions to high school and college. She said some students feel pressure to do well academically so they can get into a good college. She said it's important to remind students to take a moment to breathe and to empower and encourage them.
Teachers, parents, coaches and therapists, check in daily with high school students to make sure they are handling stress well. She said most adolescent patient she works say they don't tell adults about their issues and instead suffer in silence.
"There's just a lot of pressure and (students) need to learn to breathe, enjoy the moment and enjoy just being a kid," Cortez said. "How can we evolve and continue to be strong as a country without our kids being under stress? I know there's a solution and I am glad to see a program helping with that."
State Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, is trying to make some headway at the state level with recently filed Senate Bill 11, which focuses on violence and security in schools as well as mental health counseling.
The proposed bill, which was filed March 4, would require local mental health authorities to employ a mental health professional to serve as a resource for school districts, said Emily Dove, policy analyst for Taylor's office.
"This person would provide optional training and education on mental health for school district personnel," Dove said. "They would inform personnel on best practices for mental health intervention and keep them informed of treatment programs offered by the district or local mental health authorities."
These professionals are resources for a district and cannot treat students or provide information on a specific student to the district, she said.
The bill did have a hearing March 5, but Dove said some adjustments needed to be made before it moves on to the next step.
Lake Travis adopted legislative priorities earlier in the year that deal with safety, security and mental health initiatives while opposing unfunded mandates. Support for SB 11 has not been determined, but ongoing state funding and resources for districts to use in developing measures that will increase safety, security and mental health services is a priority, according to district documents.
Lyon said most school districts in the region already employ social workers or mental health professionals, so the plan is to create this position and funding for it as part of the next budget cycle, which began in April, and hire someone for the 2019-20 school year.
"As a school district, we want what's best for students," Lyon said. "And we want to do our best to remove barriers that prevent students from having a successful education."
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