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School Districts Developing Plans To Expand Mental Health Care For Students

Donna Berghauser is the school psychologist at McLane Middle School and president of the Florida Association of School Psychologists.
Julio Ochoa/Health News Florida
Donna Berghauser is the school psychologist at McLane Middle School and president of the Florida Association of School Psychologists.

Donna Berghauser’s office at McLane Middle School is filled with inspirational pictures, quotes and fun posters designed to get students to open up.

But the one kids relate to most is a poster that asks “How are you feeling today?” with pictures of faces displaying different emotions. There’s happy, sad, angry and right in the middle is the face of rapper Rich Homie Quan. Under his picture, his emotion says “Some Type of Way,” the title of one of his most popular songs.  

“They’re always surprised that I even know the rapper,” Berghauser said. “Sometimes when the kids don’t know how they’re feeling, they just know they feel some type of way. It gives them a little bit of leeway and it gives me a little bit of street credit, I guess.”

As the school’s psychologist, Berghauser is trained to notice when students are having problems.  

She's the only psychologist for about 700 students at McLane, but that’s a better ratio than most schools in Florida. There’s an average of one school psychologist for every 1,983 students in the state, according to a 2016 report from the Florida Association of School Psychologists.

In many districts, one psychologist serves students at several schools.

Berghauser, who is also the association’s president, says the state has a critical shortage of trained therapists. 

“When kids feel that they have one adult that they can trust on campus, it can make the difference in their world,” she said. 

In response to the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida lawmakers are providing $69 million to enhance mental health care at public schools. The money will be divided among districts based on the number of students they have.

School district officials contacted by Health News Florida said they were still developing their plans and didn’t yet know how they would meet the state’s goal of providing every student access to mental health care.

Most school districts have psychologists, school counselors and social workers on staff, but they are not always available at all schools.

The roles vary from school to school, but in general, psychologists are trained to help students deal with stress and trauma that is effecting their school performance.

Social workers provide resources for families and try to figure out why kids miss school.

School counselors generally help students create schedules and meet academic goals. 

Each district will get a share of the $69 million dollars set aside in the school safety law to develop or expand mental health care in schools. The smallest district -- in the Panhandle's Jefferson County -- will get just over $100,000. Miami-Dade, the state's largest district -- will get nearly $8 million.

Pasco County, will get $1.7 million to serve about 73,000 students. At a recent conference on mental health. Pasco superintendent Kurt Browning says more students are struggling with trauma, poverty and other issues.

“And if we don't seriously come to terms with it and develop ways to support these kids and families, we are just getting further and further, deeper and deeper into this hole,” Browning said.

Mental health experts say the money is a good start but it won't be enough to place a psychologist in every school. 

For example, Pinellas County has 81 psychologists on staff for 140 schools. In some areas psychologists rotate from school to school. That's the case at Countryside High School in Clearwater where Kayla Dixon is a junior.

Dixon says she first learned that the school has a psychologist available to meet with students after the Parkland shooting. But she thought it was just once a week.

“The only issue I see with that, while that is a good start, is what happens when I'm going through a lot on Monday and I have to talk about something on Tuesday and you're not there,” Dixon said.

Pinellas County school officials say the psychologist is actually at Countryside three days a week. The school also has a full-time social worker and three full-time counselors.  

Dixon knew about the counselors but she says students typically see them for academic needs.

“You go when you need your schedule changed. You go when you need to talk about an absence,” she said. “You don't necessarily go for, 'Hey, I'm having a lot of trouble at home, I need someone to vent to.”

Despite their reputation as academic advisors, school counselors are often the first to notice when a child is having problems, said Rebecca Schumacher, director of the Florida School Counselor Association.

But counselors also are the first to be pulled away from student interactions to administer tests, help with cafeteria and bus duties or substitute teach a class.

“That's when we're really not doing the service that we need to be doing on behalf of kids,” Schumacher said.

Her group recommends that schools allow counselors and psychologists to spend at least 80 percent of their time with students.

But it's up to each district to develop its own plan. They face an August deadline to deliver those plans to the state.

Copyright 2018 Health News Florida

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