Onsite clinicians expand mental health services at middle schools

State grant funds salaries of staff in two districts

Principals and nurses are reporting that students are talking about more anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts and stressful situations at home

Outpatient therapist Ashtyn Storms is stationed at Wyoming Junior High School, offering onsite mental health support to the diverse, 1,000-student body.

On staff at Cherry Health Health Services for four-and-a-half years, Storms has experience working with adolescents facing myriad issues that can weigh heavily on their minds. She is offering professional counseling services students otherwise may have to leave school for.

“I think sometimes it’s just availability,” said Storms, about how her presence helps students in need of immediate services. She started working at the seventh through ninth grade building in mid-September. 

“It’s being there 40 hours a week during their school day,” she said. “A lot can happen in the course of the school day. You might start off the day wonderful, and then something happens by lunchtime and your day isn’t so wonderful anymore. I think just knowing there is someone in the building you can go to if you need something is huge.”

Ashtyn Storms is on site full-time at Wyoming Junior High School

Storms’ position is possible through a two-year state grant from the Michigan Department of Mental Health and Human Services, allocated through a partnership with Cherry Health Services for licensed, master’s level behavioral health providers. Wyoming Public Schools received $100,000 of the grant to hire the clinician. Statewide, 60 schools are sharing the $5 million grant

“We felt that a lot of students in those teenage years were seeing increases in anxiety, depression and mental-health needs. We felt it was an excellent place to provide intervention for kids,” said Jason Maas, Wyoming Public Schools director of student services.

Grand Rapids Public Schools was allocated $300,000 from the grant to pay for three mental health staff members. The funds are being split evenly between Alger Middle School, Riverside Middle and City High School, said Kim Baron, a registered nurse and director of school health services. In October, two of the clinicians had been hired.

Needs are significant, Baron said. “In middle school and high school, our principals and nurses are reporting more anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts and stressful situations that kids are talking about at home.” 

According to statistics from the National Alliance on Mental Illness, one in five children ages 13 to 18 have or will have a serious mental illness. Also, suicide is the third leading cause of death in youth ages 10-24

Baron said the clinicians offer a direct way to help students.

“What we know about middle schoolers is they are trying to figure out who they are, and they are struggling with identity issues,” she said. “If we can give those students some tools to better handle their different struggles with depression, anxiety, hopelessness, social situations, whatever they are struggling with at home at a younger age, maybe we can prevent their mental health issues from getting worse before they get into high school.”

On-site, Immediate Response

Storms provides another layer of support to Wyoming’s district-wide staff of counselors, social workers, psychologists, student advocates and staff from Kent School Services Network, which provides connections to outside community resources in their buildings. 

“We do believe we have good support for our kids, but this is an opportunity to bring in someone who does clinical or therapeutic work with kids,” Maas said of hiring Storms.

Having clinicians onsite removes barriers, Baron said. “With a lot of urban school districts, families struggle with transportation and getting these kids to appointments.” 

“It’s really hard to focus on your algebra when the anxiety of the trauma you’ve experienced is dominating your thoughts. This will give students tools so they can be successful,” Maas added.

GRPS has relied on its nursing staff– 21 district wide– and school academic counselors to field mental health issues and concerns. 

“We are hoping these therapists will be able to provide some staff training, too,” Baron said. “We have an amazing team of nurses who are really good at addressing mental illness, but I think if our teachers and other support staff were given more tools to address mental health needs of students, then students would feel more supported.”

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese 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 and On-the-Town Magazine. She has been covering the many exciting facets of K-12 public education for School News Network since 2013. Read Erin's full bio or email Erin.

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