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District 196 addressing mental health through collaborative, multidisciplinary approach

Increasing mental health needs among students is a rapidly-growing issue facing school districts across the country. And in District 196, critical work is happening through a collaborative approach that brings together school counselors, school social workers, school psychologists and school nurses. This joint effort to provide care, said Dr. Stephanie Ochocki, the district’s student support and social-emotional learning coordinator, helps the district better address the many complex factors of student mental health.

“We believe building a comprehensive school mental health system that supports teamwork,” Ochocki explained. “Our multidisciplinary team approach to supporting student mental health in District 196 is united around the goal of supporting students' social and emotional wellbeing. It will be achieved in partnership with our educators, families and our community.”

The mental health challenges of students were prevalent before the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. One in five children had already been diagnosed with a mental health disorder, with the most common diagnoses being anxiety and depression. In 2019, survey results from employees, community members and students affirmed the need for additional mental health resources. Later that year, voters passed a $19 million levy referendum, providing the necessary funding to increase mental health support across the district.

As a result, the district hired more than 20 professionals. More school counselors meant increased opportunities for academic and college and career counseling for secondary students. School social worker positions became full-time, increasing access for students to receive evidence-based, social-emotional interventions and support. Additional school psychologists helped staff and students create and implement proactive strategies. And school nurses provided a critical bridge between public health and education.

“We believe that students thrive when they have consistent access to equitable environments, relationships, culturally responsive teaching and learning, and opportunities for empowerment,” Ochocki said.

Throughout the last several years, this funding has allowed Ochocki and her team to offer employees ongoing professional development centered around mental health. Schools also have access to a full continuum of supports, including co-located services for students who have more complex needs. And currently, the district is working with four mental health agencies who partner with school staff to provide students access to therapy they would not have otherwise received.

This investment in mental health resources and support was timely, Ochocki said, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, when requests for mental health and social-emotional support were at an all-time high.

“The additional staff has allowed our team to move forward in our efforts to build a comprehensive and proactive school mental health program,” Ochocki said. “As we build on the community’s investment in school mental health, we will continue to assess and evaluate our practices to ensure that we are providing these experiences. Doing so will help us create healthy school communities where the academic and social emotional well-being of our students can flourish.”