Reality Check: How does Buncombe County Schools ID students in need of mental health help

Last year 832 Buncombe County students received services from a school-based mental health provider (Photo credit: WLOS)

North Carolina legislators have proposed several bills aimed to make schools safer. One proposal aims to increase students' access to psychologists.

A Buncombe County student's well-being is the responsibility of every employee in the school. Buncombe County Schools Student Services Director David Thompson says a simple question can yield a complex answer.

"If you see something different from what you typically see of that child during the day, then it's a reason to ask, 'What's going on.' Just three words," said Thompson. "It's as simple as that, as asking what's going on? Has something happened? What's different? Then listen carefully to the child about what they say."

If a student says something is going on, he or she can meet with a school counselor. Every school has at least one. Thompson says the school staff's job is to ensure the student can attend class and learn. When there's a therapeutic need, the counselor will refer the student to an agency, like Family Preservation Services. Parents must agree for their child to receive therapy at school.

"It's not what's wrong with you. It's what has happened to you. And that's a big paradigm shift," said Carson Ojamaa, North Carolina director of Family Preservations Services.

Last year, 832 Buncombe County students received services from a school-based provider. The district has agreements with nine mental health agencies. The agreements allow the organizations to provide services inside the school, which Ojamaa says makes it easier for students to get help.

"Access to services is wide open, and a lot of the children and youth that we see might not have otherwise accessed mental health," she said.

Thompson says a majority of kids referred for school-based mental health services have Medicaid or Health Choice or are eligible. Ojamaa says the majority of kids they treat have experienced toxic stress or some form of trauma. She says that affects kids' abilities to self-regulate, which then affects their ability to learn. Through therapy, they try to teach kids how to self-regulate and problem solve.

"If you are able to solve problems, you're less likely to cope with problems in maladaptive ways with behavioral outbursts, or just other kinds of behaviors that get kids in trouble," said Ojamaa.

Thompson says the refer-all process works well, because of the relationships the school district and the agencies have developed. What could improve? Thompson says they always want to do better at having therapists available when students need them. Ojamaa says there are challenges to retaining their work force.

"Industrywide, there's a high turnover rate for this field for a variety of reasons -- pay and burnout being two of the biggest ones," she said.

Thompson says other school districts look at Buncombe County as a leader when it comes to students' mental health.

"We really want our kids not just to get by, we want our kids to be successful and thrive and be able to function within the community and be independent," he said.

Thompson says he gets multiple calls a week from people within other school districts asking about mental health. He says they're doing well, in part, because they've made it a priority.

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