Macon Schools seeking solutions to mental health crisis: Part II

Today’s students deal with myriad of situations both at home and at school creating a mental health crisis the school systems are scrambling to address.

Diane Peltz – Contributing Writer

The COVID-19 pandemic may have led to a mental health crisis as declared by the United States surgeon general just over a year ago, but U.S. children and teens have been suffering for far longer. Whether it’s pandemic isolation, broken or troubled homes, absent parents or caregivers, today’s kids have much to contend with. 

All these difficulties, on top of growing concerns about social media, violence, natural disasters—not to mention the normal ups and downs of childhood and adolescence—can feel insurmountable for those who work with kids. Macon County Schools are taking steps to address some of the issues.

What Macon Schools are Implementing

Macon County students are not immune to the pressures experienced by students in larger cities. Macon Schools have seen a drastic rise in mental health issues since 2020 and the onslaught of COVID.  The trend is so widespread that the Macon School Board decided to contract an MOU (memorandum of understanding) with two mental health providers to bring services into the schools.  The Long Center for Psychological Services treats patients at their office off Highlands Road in Franklin. When a child is in need of counseling in the past, they had to leave school to go to the provider to obtain services, which is not always feasible for some students and parents. Having to pull a child out of school and taking off work on a weekly basis for a therapy session, can be very difficult for many working parents. With this MOU in place the Long Center will be able to make available therapists, who can counsel a child at their home school.  Special arrangements have been made to accommodate the therapists and the clients at school.  Weekly sessions will be held in a designated quiet room reserved for counseling. No student will be pulled out of a core class, such as English or Math, for these services.  These services, which have already begun, will be for existing Long Center clients at first. Parents of these students have already secured a counselor for their child using their insurance benefits for payment to the Long Center.  Rebecca Long, Psychologist with the Long Center explains. 

“There are many challenges adolescents face, some of which have been exacerbated by the pandemic over the past few years.  Teens can be affected by external stressors such as school performance, relational conflict with peers or significant others, family challenges such as domestic violence, unstable housing, or lack of adequate resources. Kids and teens can suffer from depression, anxiety disorders, ADHD [Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder], and can have a variety of symptoms after experiencing a traumatic event. Teens often demonstrate poor decision-making, and can be at risk for alcohol and substance use as well as self harm behaviors. 

“We hear from many families who are struggling with diverse challenges that affect their teens, as they navigate this complex world while developing their sense of self and independence towards adulthood,” said Long. “We do offer referrals to other providers in the community, if needed,  as well as coordinate care with other specialties such as physicians and community partners.  Since I have practiced here over the past 17 years, Macon County has remained a federally designated health professional shortage area. This means that often families have difficulty finding mental health services to address their needs and we continue to deal with this reality in our rural area. There continues to be more needs in our community than mental health professionals to address them, but we believe that formalizing this relationship with the school system will better enable The Long Center to … help meet some of the needs for child and adolescent services. 

“All of the therapists at The Long Center for Psychology have earned Master’s degrees in a counseling related field. Each either maintains full licensure status for independent practice by his or her respective professional board, or is provisionally licensed and working towards completing requirements for full licensure.  As this program progresses new referrals can be made. The majority of our active child and teen clients are already in the Macon County school system. Parents/guardians can continue to contact the Long Center office directly to request school-based therapy for their child, or their child’s pediatrician can initiate services with their preferred provider. Families can contact their child’s school counselor to find out about therapy options or resources they need.”

The other MOU is between the school board and HIGHTS (Helping Inspire Gifts of Hope and Trust Services).  HIGHTS will be available to conduct “threat assessments” when notified. A threat assessment is intended to prevent violence and involves both assessment and intervention. Threat assessments involve determining whether a student poses a threat of violence (they have intent and means to carry out the threat).  A threat is an expression of intent to physically or sexually harm someone.  

Within 24 hours of notification of the “threat” HIGHTS counselors,  who are highly trained and credentialed, licensed therapists, will come in and perform an assessment to analyze what services might be needed and to decide if the student will be facing suspension or other charges. Such would be the case for the student from Franklin High School (FHS) who reportedly had a hand gun on school grounds recently.  

“Based on the assessment outcome, a student can immediately be admitted to our alternative to suspension program, ‘Inside Out,’” said Executive Director of HIGHTS Marcus Metcalf.   “Students participate in healthy activities, academic work, and therapeutic interventions to improve decision making skills and connect with positive influences. The student is supervised by trained adults while the student is out of school.  Once they receive the assessment and a safety plan is developed, the student may return to school.  Recommendations vary but most are referred to behavioral health counseling, mediation services, or other natural supports in the community. It could also result in a referral to an inpatient hospital if the student reports serious safety concerns.”

Inside Out also provides opportunities to complete virtual learning and online tutoring. Using a restorative justice model, youth are challenged to identify reasons for their suspension and make a plan to successfully re-enter their education setting when possible. HIGHTS also offers a Summer Adventure Program from mid-June to early-August. Youth raft local rivers, swim in area lakes, cave, rock climb, bike, and hike. Youth also participate in art and music programs and community service projects. These activities are provided free of charge to all youth.

Metcalf commented about Union Academy, an alternative school in Macon County. 

“Union Academy is a tremendous resource for students in Macon County. Students in every school have access to the same resources for mental and physical health. Union offers smaller class sizes and more individual supports including behavioral health services. Macon County needs a continuum of supportive schools and programs to provide effective support to all our students from the most gifted to the most vulnerable. We are in the mental health crisis of our lifetime. All of our youth have been significantly affected by the pandemic, and the social pressures we are all dealing with.  HIGHTS is proud to partner with our local school systems, juvenile justice, churches, Social Services, employers, WCU, Southwestern Workforce Commission, and our community colleges to provide a continuum of supports for youth and families in Western North Carolina. We are passionate about helping local kids reach their potential to live healthy productive lives.”

Other available resources

Brooke Keener, Exceptional Children Director, explains that the community has other resources such as Appalachian Community Services and Blue Ridge Health (formerly known as Meridian).  These agencies do not have available staff to counsel children at the schools.  Macon County Schools has available eight mental health specialists – six which are full time and two who are part time contract workers.  Two Social Workers are also employed who are able to visit clients at home for wraparound services.  Services provided through wraparound programs can include:

• Case management (service coordination)

• Counseling (individual, family, group, youth, and vocational)

• Crisis care and outreach.

• Education/special education services, tutoring.

• Family support, independent living supports, self-help or support groups.

“There are ways a report can be made to a school if someone suspects an individual to be a threat,” explained Keener. “Sandy Hook Promise’s Say Something Anonymous Reporting System (SS-ARS) is a holistic program combining education about the warning signs of potential violence or self-harm with the tools to safely report concerns. This is the only anonymous reporting system in the U.S. that provides training along with a mobile app, website, and hotline – exclusively for schools. Macon County is now part of this reporting system.” 

Here are six warning signs that your child might need help.

• Defiant behavior

• Sudden shift  in usual interests

• Excessive worrying, or sadness

• Regressive behaviors, i.e.; bedwetting, baby talk, tantrums

• Social isolation, i.e.; eating lunch alone, avoiding playdates, lack of desire to leave the house

• Talking about self harm

If your child is in need of help, speak to their teacher(s), principal, doctor, or other community resource.

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