The proposed bill could provide more mental health resources at Del colleges.

DELAWARE — Some of the first state’s lawmakers are hoping to get more mental health resources for public school students. House Bill 300 would create a mental health services unit in Delaware colleges. “I think we need to kind of rename and demystify what mental health services really are and what they can mean for individuals and families,” said the Seaford School District’s director of student services ( SSD), Dr. James Bell.

Strengthening existing support

Dr. Bell says SSD offers individual and family counseling sessions through a referral process with four partner agencies. Schools are also equipped with teams that identify welfare needs. Staff have also undergone de-escalation training and can take advantage of the yoga, meditation, and relaxation rooms.

Even with all of these resources already in place, Dr. Bell says the legislation would only strengthen the help available. “It will help put the focus where it is needed and add additional resources. That’s ultimately what we’re looking to do: continue to build the model we have here at Seaford,” he said. “We just want people to understand that it’s something that’s easily accessible. All you have to do is take the first step and indicate that you need the service.

In Cape Henlopen School District (CHSD), Mariner Middle School counselor Frank Shockley says it’s a similar story. The CHSD has recently hired additional staff in mental and behavioral health. They also have an outside group that helps with referrals. But, says Shockley, in addition to those existing resources, they just need more hands on deck. “The more mental health providers we have within the school, the further we can move away from the reactive realm, more into this preventative and proactive realm,” he said.

Mental health in the spotlight

In fact, the growing need for mental health services in schools has been mirrored throughout Delaware. That’s according to the president of the Delaware Association of School Psychologists, Jessica Kradjel. She says students started showing signs of needing more mental health help years ago.

Add to that the COVID-19 pandemic, and Kradjel says those needs have only been thrust into the spotlight. “The past few years have been really difficult for students in terms of their mental, social and emotional health. We spent a lot of time feeling isolated, anxious and living in the unknown – this new territory,” she said. “I think our students came back to school feeling even more isolated and alone, confused, and a lot of mental health issues came out of that.”

Shockley says he’s seen students miss key transition periods in their lives, like going from elementary to middle school, or middle school to high school. “That, I think, has been huge. We are constantly here doing restorative circles to just help students communicate with each other,” he said.

As the COVID-19 storm brewed, Kradjel says it wasn’t just students struggling to keep track of their mental health; school staff also found themselves faced with an ever-increasing number of students in need of assistance. “The second another mental health care provider is added to a school, their caseload is totally filled,” Kradjel said.

That’s why Kradjel says she hopes to see House Bill 300 passed and more people made available to provide mental health resources. “If the load is lighter in middle schools, the load is lighter in elementary schools, and the load is lighter in high schools,” she said. “Children learn coping skills which can be leaving the classroom and going to see someone. It may be great, but by the time they get through high school and into adulthood, they really have to deal with their mental health issues on their own.

Look forward

At present, the bill is still making its way through committee hearings. If passed, the legislation will come into force upon enactment.

Until then, school professionals say there are ways to help students navigate mental health. “You’re not alone. You should try to collaborate and consult with mental health providers who are in the school setting,” Shockley said. “More than likely, they’ve seen it before and they can offer good advice , even bringing together a few different stakeholders so that we can discuss how best to meet those needs.”

Dr. Bell says that sentiment resonates in SSD. “I think providing mental health services to people in need is something that shouldn’t be overlooked,” he said. “There is nothing wrong with them. It’s a situation where we just need to connect them with someone they can talk to and work on situations.

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