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Social worker reaches out to students, parents to meet mental health needs


Social worker Maggie Hummel handed out resources to parents at Wyoming High School’s recent student conferences, providing information about youth mental health, symptoms of distress and where to get help.

She wants parents to know there’s somewhere to turn — that they can tap into school and community services — if their child is showing signs of anxiety, depression or other mental health issues. Ultimately, the goal is help students have happy, healthy futures and even save lives.

“Our teens are facing a number of social stressors. These often include family or peer conflicts, self-esteem, social media challenges, as well as critical challenges with having adequate housing and food,” said Hummel, who started working at the high school last year. “Our county, state and country are seeing suicide rates and attempts rise, and we are witnessing this and responding.”

Hidden Pain: Bringing Youth Mental Health out of the Shadows is a continuing series of School News Network

The CDC estimates that up to one in five children experience a mental disorder in any given year. About 5 percent of 3- to 17-year-olds have reported having anxiety, and 11.4 percent of youths ages 12 to 17 had at least one major depressive episode in the past year. Also, research shows teen suicide has increased significantly. Locally, suicides in Kent County have reached an all-time high.

“We do see more and more kids presenting with major issues,” said high school Principal Nate Robrahn. “(Hummel) has been able to help identify that … and make more informed decisions about what students need.”

Hummel is the source for “triage” at the school,” Robrahn said.

March is Social Worker Appreciation Month. This year’s theme, “Elevate Social Work” embodies the need to recognize the extraordinary contributions of the profession to our society.

“She can make decisions about what students need, which then has freed up my counselors to do more of their role. She’s very connected with resources out in the community and can help parents and students access them.”

Hummel, who has worked as a medical social worker and clinical therapist for Spectrum Health and Cherry Health, said she’s worked with more than 130 Wyoming High School students, many of whom come to her by choice because they are struggling. Others are referred by staff members who notice signs of distress.

“We definitely want families to know we exist, and come to us with concerns,” she said. The high school team includes another social worker, two academic counselors and a college adviser to help meet students’ needs — academic and emotional.

Hummel said she’s thankful her role has allowed her to help students get the treatment they need, and she’s also seen valuable connections made within school. “I also see our staff responding through investing and connecting with our teens. When staff connect with and support students, this serves as a protective factor that can reduce the risk for suicide and promote positive mental health.”

Mom Julie LaMar checks out resources during parent teacher conferences

Screenings Serve as Indicators

Hummel offers student screenings in the form of questionnaires to help identify symptoms of anxiety and depression. Results — a tally of numbers, low to high, indicating possible disorders — can provide her an opportunity to talk to parents. “The screening gives a number, and it’s an objective number. It gives parents and kids something to latch on to and say, ‘We should probably take action.’”

Still, there are a number of students with high scores for depression and anxiety who lack resources due to finances, time and other stressors that are having a hard time getting into therapy.

Hummel does everything she can do get them the help they need, including referring them to outside agencies or resources. Network 180 is a go-to, as well as Integrated Health Consultants in Wyoming. Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services and Forest View Hospital are other options. Whether a facility accepts Medicaid is a major factor, Hummel said.

Expanding Staff to Meet Needs

The district allocated Title 1 funds, earmarked for schools that have high percentages of children from low-income families, to fund Hummel’s position.

“Our district is one of several that have invested funds to support a position like mine,” Hummel said. “They’ve done a  really great job in recognizing that schools do need additional mental health resources and supports, beyond what school are expected to support. They’ve done a good job of going the extra mile.”

Other districts have expanded their counseling teams as well. Cedar Springs Public Schools recently hired a child life specialist and two child life interventionists as part of the mental health team, whose goal is making sure that every student is at their best mental state to perform academically.

‘Data suggests teenagers today are facing more social challenges than before.’ — social worker Maggie Hummel

Byron Center High School added a part-time counselor to help with social and emotional needs, and has another part-time social worker in the alternative North Star Academy program.

Students Struggling in High Numbers

The “why” behind the increases in youth mental health issues is hard to nail down Hummel said, but she believes social media is a big factor. “Data suggests teenagers today are facing more social challenges than before.”

While anxiety and depression is increasing in general, Hummel said low-income students face particular challenges connected to basic needs that can both create distress and cause barriers to treatment

“Students have their best outcomes when they are connected to therapy and have consulted with a primary care doctor or psychiatrist about medication management,”  Hummel said. “This can be a big feat for families, especially if they are working long hours, have transportation challenges or other family stressors.”

Parents, together with staff, can make a big difference in helping students.

“We’ve got some phenomenal parents in our district that are responding appropriately when these crises arise. That’s something we really need to celebrate, Hummel said.

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese is associate managing editor and reporter, covering Byron Center, Kentwood, Wyoming and Grand Rapids Community College. She was one of the original SNN staff writers, helping launch the site in 2013 and enjoys fulfilling the mission of sharing the stories of public education. She has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers, On-the-Town Magazine and Group Tour Media. Read Erin's full bio or email Erin.

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