And the most commonly used words to describe that difference? Pressure and anxiety. Pressure to perform at a high level. Pressure to get good grades. Pressure around peer acceptance. Pressure to cope with complex family needs. Pressure to take the next big step into adulthood. When teens perceive, rightly or wrongly, that they fall short in any of these, it can result in chronic, debilitating levels of anxiety. That anxiety in turn can create barriers to success in school, at home and in life.
Those pressures often are exacerbated by an instant-gratification social media culture that puts our personal lives on display. Yes, all the world’s a stage (especially in high school where Oscar-worthy drama is an everyday occurrence), but even Shakespeare couldn’t have envisioned a world where the daily lives of high school teens are broadcast for all their peers to see, and, more importantly, to judge.
Faced with substantial and at times alarming reports about the increased demand for teens needing access to professional mental health counseling, the Issaquah School District did something about it. They reached out to an established community healthcare provider, Swedish Hospital, and inquired about the possibility of collaborating to address this complex issue in a thoughtful, hands-on way. The result: all three comprehensive Issaquah High Schools (Liberty, Skyline and Issaquah) now have a full-time, professional mental health counselor on staff and in the building during the school year.
Eastside Education Network sat down with Swedish Hospital to discuss this unique partnership. Stacia Fisher, who oversees the program, explained why Swedish and Issaquah school district were a logical match for addressing the mental health needs of teens: “This is an opportunity to integrate into the Eastside Community through holistic care. We know healthy kids learn better, and that includes mental health.”
The assigned counselors are Licensed Independent Clinical Social Workers (LICSW), which means they can diagnose and treat mental health conditions. Because the counselors are Swedish employees, they can access other health care professionals Swedish partners with, such as child psychologists or psychiatrists. They can also leverage the vast network of Swedish to help students find community-based services, as well as assist with help with insurance coverage questions. Staffing costs are shared, with Issaquah school district paying the salary while Swedish covers the benefits.
Swedish also operates a Teen Health Center at Ballard High School in Seattle that provides wrap-around services for a variety of needs, through an on-site nurse practitioner, social worker and mental health counselor. Fisher explained that the center at Ballard provided a framework for Issaquah School District in developing their school-based mental health program.
According to Swedish, students who utilize school-based mental health services have fewer discipline problems, course failures and absences. Yet our current system really isn’t designed to address the complex mental health needs of the typical high school student. Not only does the average high school guidance counselor in Washington have caseloads that are far too large (the average workload for a counselor in Washington is 510 students), more importantly, they are not trained mental health professionals.
Counselor Tori McBride has been a mental health counselor at Issaquah High School for about one year. She talked about her work with us, describing it as a “little overwhelming at first” because she wasn’t completely aware “of what kids are facing these days.” Her counseling touches on a variety of needs that are common for high school students, such as depression, anxiety, relationship problems as well as grief and loss. McBride explained that “kids ask for help in different ways. We always watch for behavior changes such as self-harm. These behaviors are not always attention seeking. We’re trying to get students the support they need.”
If the student needs a follow-up referral, the counselor helps the student find community-based resources and navigate insurance coverage for any health care providers. McBride also encourages the student to involve his/her family from the beginning of the process. Ultimately it is up to the student, ideally with support from the student’s family, to make the appointments and attend any therapy sessions. Fisher explained that the aim of the program is to “normalize mental health as part of the school environment. We are teaching them to manage their mental health, to learn how to navigate the system, and to own it.”
Want to get involved in school-based mental health advocacy? Click here to learn more about the School-Based Health Alliance.
Need more information about mental health services? Click here for listing of information from King County.