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New Hanover County Health Dept. doubles clinical therapy staff in elementary, middle schools

The services can give kids the confidence and coping skills they will take with them throughout the rest of their lives
Published: Mar. 28, 2022 at 6:02 PM EDT
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WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - Two years after the onset of the pandemic, countless families are still living with the physical and emotional impacts of COVID-19.

The American Academy of Pediatrics and the US Surgeon General declared a national emergency in children and young adult mental health, hoping to highlight the urgent need to address the crisis. In New Hanover County, local leaders have leveraged federal relief funds to lend a helping hand.

New Hanover County Health and Human Services’ school mental health program has been up and running for 20 years now, putting licensed clinical therapists in local schools.

Few places in the state have such tools at their disposal, and this past year, the county used American Rescue Plan funding to grow the team from 16 therapists to 32.

The program leverages the trusted network of relationships in local schools and removes many of the barriers elementary and middle school students have to getting mental healthcare.

“Access is always an issue. The beauty of this program is that the clinicians are right in the schools so the children are in the environment where the clinicians are embedded. Families don’t have to transport their children anywhere special for an appointment and there’s no cost to families whatsoever,” said New Hanover County Health and Human Services Director Donna Fayko.

Licensed clinical therapist Kimberly Van Lanen was hired in October to work with students at Myrtle Grove Middle School.

Although she’s an employee of the county health department, she operates discretely at the end of a school hallway in an office just large enough for a desk, a few chairs and a bookshelf stacked with neat boxes of coloring books, playing cards and board games.

While she plays the occasional round of Uno to encourage kids to open up, her job isn’t all fun and games.

The pandemic resulted in unprecedented social isolation for kids. In addition to adjusting to virtual learning and the return to the classroom, the pressure of families working and learning under the same roof exacerbated tensions already present at home, leading to an unprecedented need for services.

“Disruptive behaviors in the classroom, maybe irritability, disrespectful behavior, out of character, and low academic performance. Struggling with social friendship. Once they get in the door, you realize there’s probably something going on at home too,” said Van Lanen of her young clients. “Then I see mood issues, low mild depression, suicidal thoughts, some self harm, that’s happening. Some are anxiety based, some have a hard time coming to school. Honestly, there’s still kids dealing with deaths in their family from COVID. "

In the school-based program, teachers and guidance counselors identify kids that might need some help and ask their families if they’d be interested in taking part in the county’s free, in-school therapy program.

When Van Lanen started work this fall, she took on a full caseload from the previous therapist and a waiting list with 16 students on it.

“We started the school year with one therapist. Because of the need that was shown, the health department was fantastic and was able to add another therapist for us, so now we’re able to serve twice the kids. We don’t have to turn anyone away,” said Myrtle Grove Middle School Principal Cyndy Bliss. ”Kids being able to be served at school and not have to come be picked up and checked out during academic time has increased our attendance, increased engagement of our students.”

In addition to the short term benefits, the services can give kids the confidence and coping skills that will take with them throughout the rest of their lives.

“You’re getting them when they’re still young, they’re still growing,” said Van Lanen “If you can pull them into an office and sit down and they can process the who, what, when where, why and how, they can come up with a health narrative. They get to resolve it now and it doesn’t influence them and all their relationships and all their approach to life in the future… they no longer maybe have to see the world as a big bad scary place.”

County leaders say the program has been so successful, they’re already planning to expand offerings and provide services to serve pre-school aged children in New Hanover County.

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