Three staff of the mental health team

Substantial changes have taken place over the last 10 years related to how Bellingham Public Schools (BPS) supports the whole child. This includes restorative justice practices to minimize out-of-school suspensions and expulsions, and adopting and teaching social emotional learning (SEL) curriculum focused on teaching students social skills while building community. BPS also provides annual trainings around trauma-informed practices and suicide prevention.

“I’m proud that we start students’ day with a focus on building community, connection and belonging, whether in an elementary morning circle or an advisory class at secondary,” said Executive Director of Teaching and Learning Trina Hall. “Elementary students start and end their day with these social-emotional ‘book ends.’ There is a culture here at BPS that believes in SEL and how it helps us all in being successful.”

Teaching SEL skills of self and social awareness, relationship skills, goal setting and perspective taking are important. These efforts support a safe and engaging learning environment for students and can include approaches like a focus on understanding and naming emotions, and perspective taking.

“Students notice how polarized our society is. If we can teach and model how to share and learn perspectives, dialog about differences in a respectful way, and seek to understand one another, that’s what we want kids to be learning,” said Hall.

Social-emotional learning curriculum works in conjunction with recent increases in staffing to facilitate support and critical access to mental health services for students and families. Over the past three years, BPS has added three new positions to support mental health efforts: a mental health coordinator and two mental health specialists.

Using a tiered-based approach, like a ladder, all students receive universal supports like social emotional curriculum and teaching from staff trained in trauma-informed teaching. Those are the first rung on the ladder, along with parent or guardian support. For students who need more support, whether because of the loss of a family member or difficulty with peers, they can access school counselors, a step up on the ladder/tier. And from there, based on needs, staff can help families and students access more intensive supports like mental health therapy in the community.

“We walk beside parents, elevate them as a child’s first teachers and support them with the first rungs in a ladder of support,” said Chris Cochran, who was hired as a districtwide mental health coordinator in early 2020. “If we can build up those rungs, increasing the supportive adults in a child’s life, we can prevent students from needing more intensive supports.”

Hiring a mental health coordinator has also allowed BPS to build upon existing agreements with local mental health providers like Compass Health, Sea Mar, and Unity Care NW to provide onsite mental health counseling for students and to streamline forms and access.

More recently, BPS hired two mental health specialists who are each assigned to a group of schools, and work as a team with the coordinator. One of the goals of the mental health team is to connect students with existing services to support sustained relationships and to fill in the gaps when they exist, whether because of insurance or waiting times.

“We were seeing the overwhelming needs related to depression and anxiety in youth pre-COVID,” said Hall, “and we’ve been working diligently to combat students feeling isolated and alone. Hiring mental health staff has been an incredible support.”

The mental health team provides consultation to teachers and administrators, shares resources with families, and supports students in multiple ways, all while working as a team with counselors and prevention intervention specialists as other ladder rungs of support. They also provide concentrated support to students who have mental health and behavioral support needs.

“There are so many more facets to supporting our students that our teachers and staff are juggling amazingly well right now,” said Laura Burke, mental health specialist.

The return to in-person instruction has highlighted changes in student needs especially around general classroom skills and ability to be present and engaged for a full school day.

“Student may not have stamina for a full day of instruction including basic classroom skills like walking in lines and interacting with peers; it’s taking more conscious efforts from staff and an acceptance that ‘our kids are where they are right now’,” said Anna Rittmueller, mental health specialist. “We’ve also seen a fair amount of anxiety.”

“Everyone’s stress levels are at least a little bit higher. When stress levels are higher, our capacity is lower,” said Burke. “In this pandemic world, our brains aren’t really capable of what they were capable of two years ago. That self-compassion piece for adults and that understanding for our kids is really important. It will be a road to travel — this is a build-back process.”

Student Support Teams on Mental Health and Wellness

School Counselors play an important role as resource and support for students and families. BPS has increased the number of school counselors over the past five years and now, all elementary schools have a school counselor. Middle and high schools added additional school counselors as well. Like all staff, school counselors and prevention intervention specialists faced a number of unique challenges during the 2020-21 school year. We sat down with the team at Squalicum High School and the Mental Health Specialists to hear their perspectives on mental health during COVID.

“We did more mental health referrals than ever last year, and May was the first time that there was nowhere to refer kids. The worst thing is when a student admits they need the help and you can’t get it,” said Debra Hicks-Smith, school counselor.

Unfortunately, that trend of increased need for mental health services has only accelerated in fall 2021. As of October 10, 2021, BPS referrals to mental health providers had already exceeded the total number of referrals in the 2020-21 school year.

As mental health coordinator, Cochran provides support to help staff connect families with mental health services. Even with this coordinated support, barriers to access continue including long waitlists for appointments and limited availability of culturally competent counselors who speak languages other than English.

“I think the district has always cared about mental health, but I think COVID pushed mental health to the forefront,” said Aramis Johnson, school counselor.

BPS’ increased emphasis on mental health and wellness has opened the door for more staff and students to talk about mental health, a stigmatized issue.

“Kids coming back have been super open. They want to talk, share and connect with people, way more so than usual,” said school counselor Kelly Boyer.

If you are concerned about your student, contact your student support team, which includes prevention intervention specialists and school counselors.

“The school community has been a family in all of this. People are still healing. It’s so important that families and students know that we are still here for them,” said Stevona Burks, prevention intervention specialist.

To find your school counselor, visit the BPS contact page and search “counselor” in the job field.

For resources on supporting your student, visit the Mental Health and Wellness section of our website and read our Wellness newsletters.

Next steps for BPS?  

The district plans to launch a Mental Health Advisory Board to guide the work and examine how to best support students and families in collaboration with the community.

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