News Article Details

Mental health funding brings more therapists to Sarasota schools

The Herald-Tribune - 8/8/2019

Aug. 8--When a child is hiding under the desk, tearing up schoolwork, or acting physically aggressive toward classmates and teachers, there is often something traumatic happening in that child's life, says a therapist who works in the Sarasota County School District.

After the Parkland shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, state lawmakers last year allocated $69 million to fund mental health care in school districts. Sarasota County received $1,051,105, which went to contracts with outside agencies to provide mental health therapists to 16 elementary schools and seven middle schools.

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Therapists from the Florida Center for Early Childhood, which once worked only in a few Title 1 schools, are now in 15 elementary schools in Sarasota County, funded by the school district, the Community Foundation of Sarasota County and The Florida Center.

Mental health care for a 4-year-old is much different than for a teenager -- it's more focused on the parent or caregiver.

"There's no such thing as a baby; there's a baby and someone," said Melissa Bradley, director of school-based mental health services at the Florida Center for Early Childhood.

Following the additional funding last year, therapists now work with parents as well, visiting their homes to observe what their home lives are like and help provide some guidance.

"With an infant, toddler or 5-year-old, their ability to be successful is dependent on how nurturing their caregiver relationship is," Bradley said. "As mental health professionals working with that population, we do whatever we can to support the parent and the child together."

This summer, therapists from the Florida Center for Early Childhood conducted Parent University sessions as part of the school district's summer learning academies. They taught parents about topics like adverse childhood trauma and positive parenting.

Monica Mehserle, a therapist at the Florida Center for Early Childhood, works full time at Lamarque Elementary School. The majority of children she sees come from stressful home situations, experiencing things like domestic violence, the incarceration of their parents, being homeless or living in foster care.

"The word 'trigger' gets thrown around easily, but we don't ever stop to think about what it really means," Mehserle said. "If a child is coming from a really abusive or violent home, and something was dropped on the ground and breaks, that could bring up so much inside their body that they end up acting out, and the teacher doesn't understand what's going on."

Children tend to blame themselves for events outside of their control, such as their parents' divorce, going to jail, or abandoning the family, Mehserle said. When kids experience someone in their lives suddenly leaving, which Mehserle calls attachment disruptions, what may seem like ADHD is actually severe trauma or a stress-related disorder.

"They lack a lot of that trust that somebody in this world is going to protect them," she said.

Mental health issues in young children also tend to affect their education.

"If the police came to the home and (the child) experienced maybe screaming, yelling, hitting, imagine that child going to school the next day and being able to focus on the lesson," Bradley said. "It's impossible to do that. Oftentimes, it comes out in behaviors that leave the teachers wondering, 'What is this?' Having a therapist bridges that gap, and they're able to have a more understanding and compassionate view of the child -- they're not somebody who's trying to be defiant, there's a lot beneath that surface."

Teachers use traditional interventions with children who have behavioral issues, and when those don't work, they refer the child to a school therapist, who looks at the child's full family history. The therapists also train teachers to deal with kids who have adverse experiences in the context of other problems -- a "trauma-informed" way.

"The district's long-term goal is to create trauma-informed schools and we share that vision with them," Bradley said. "We're coming in and, every year, chipping away at shifting how people see kids."

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