July 3, 2019 — “There simply isn’t enough counseling service, or mental health service, in this part of the community to meet the demand,” said Siuslaw School District Superintendent Andy Grzeskowiak. “The few people that have done [adolescent mental health] counseling over the years, they get overwhelmed without additional providers to help spread the load. They do it for three or four years, and then they take a break for a few years. It’s simply because they are working dawn to dusk, filling their calendar. There’s a need.”
Filling that need will become easier now that PeaceHealth awarded a $350,000 grant to Western Lane Behavioral Health Network (WLBHN) to provide behavioral health counseling to students in the Siuslaw and Mapleton school districts. PeaceHealth also provided an additional $50,000, on top of over $600,000 in federal and other local grants.
Two counseling centers are planned to open in the fall by WLBHN, which is a partnership between the school districts, PeaceHealth Peace Harbor, Lane County Public Health, Options Counseling and Family Service and Trillium Community Health Plans.
The centers will have a staff of two — a licensed nurse practitioner with a specialty focus in adolescent mental health and a trained social worker. Students who are referred to the service will be able to receive counseling and referrals from the mental health expert, while the social worker will help the students and their families obtain additional services in the area, creating a one-stop, well-rounded approach to mental health.
“It’s really about care coordination,” Jason Hawkins, chief administrative officer at PeaceHealth Peace Harbor, told the Siuslaw School Board in June. “A lot of times we have these services, but where are they? Sometimes they’re fragmented, or in larger areas such as Springfield. How do we deploy services locally? Sometimes people will come in to see a counselor, and there are a lot more dynamics instead of just crisis. Sometimes there’s addiction issues, sometimes there’s abuse issues.”
And these issues can seep into the classroom.
“We’re seeing it,” Grzeskowiak said. “When you look at the general statistics for the county and the western half, there is an unusually high number of incidents reported to DHS (Department of Human Services) where kids are kind of melting down at home. I don’t know what causes that, what link there is. But yeah, we’re seeing it. And if a kid is struggling at home, they’re probably going to come here and get in trouble with the same behaviors. You have kids that have negative interactions with each other, which tend to lead to some bigger emotional outbursts and blowups. … Having another councilor and doing a little more intensive work will help stem those and bring it down.”
As of now, counseling services at Siuslaw School District are scarce.
“At the high school, our counselors are doing a lot of academic and post-secondary planning with kids,” Grzeskowiak said. “They’re not licensed to do therapeutic work individually or in a small group.”
Siuslaw Middle School has one counselor for approximately 340 students, “So being able to see every kid that comes through is difficult to begin with,” Grzeskowiak said. “And they’re not therapy sessions. They do some skill building work with interpersonal relationships and that type of material. That helps some of it.”
Next year, the elementary school will bring a second fulltime counselor to help, but even then, counselor/student time is limited.
“The elementary counselors deal with a lot of the day-to-day, ins-and-outs of little kids and what they go through,” Grzeskowiak said. “But if you have a kid with a much larger issue arising from home or a mental health issue, that could conceivably take an entire day. And when you’re doing that, the other 25 kids you want to check on and make sure they’re here, they got all their stuff. If they’re otherwise happy and healthy, you might not be able to see them that day.”
Ideally, Grzeskowiak said that the introduction of the counseling center will reduce the number of incidents of pushing, shoving and physical aggression seen outside of the classroom.
“And we would see fewer of the kind of outbursts we do see in class,” Grzeskowiak said. “That’s really the whole goal of this.”
The majority of issues the counselor is expected to deal with are just normal, everyday problems that children face, “the day-to-day, run of the mill, 21st century kind of stuff that kids need help with as much as anything else,” Grzeskowiak said.
But there have been instances where some students will get so upset that they knock over desks or throw a chair.
“Our staff is really good — the counselors, administrators and teachers — in dealing with that,” Grzeskowiak said. “We haven’t had the big newspaper incidents like some incidents in Eugene schools.”
In November 2019, more than 150 people attended a Eugene School Board meeting to discuss a myriad of issues regarding behavioral health issues in the district, and the lack of funding to alleviate the issues.
According to a Nov. 29 article in The Register-Guard, “…Teachers and educational assistants alike at the meeting said they are witnessing more students becoming more violent more often at school. They detailed children biting, kicking, hitting, screaming and urinating in the classroom.”
Siuslaw is not experiencing the same type of behavior or at the level seen in the bigger city.
“The incidents here are fairly isolated,” Grzeskowiak said. “You can have one student who does this once or twice, maybe three times in a month, and it will become the talk of the entire school. Some of those incidents get blown way out of proportion.”
But when they do occur, it can create frustrations in the classroom between teachers and the student body, as well as be socially isolating for the student having issues.
The reasons for such outbursts from students can be complex. While sometimes it can be a disciplinary issue, generally it involves multiple factors. A counseling center could help determine those factors.
Grzeskowiak said that the majority of issues occur when students are transitioning.
“If somebody is doing something they really, really like, and it’s time for the entire class to move from reading to art, we have some kids that are so entrenched with what they do, that they will have these outbursts over it,” Grzeskowiak said. “If you feel that way, how do you deal with it before the outburst? That’s a lot of what our counselors work with, but for some kids, it’s going to be more time than an individual school counselor can give. And if they really have a true need for it, we’ll have a clinical professional on-site that can help.”
Trained on-campus counselors, along with other medical and social service professionals, can determine the root of issues with students.
“They learn how to deal with that with some outside services,” Grzeskowiak said. “And things got better. That’s the thing. We’re trying to give kids more tools to get along the way.
Having counselors on campus will also help students having trouble keeping up with their schoolwork and attendance.
“If you have a 10 or 11 o’clock appointment, you’re getting checked out of school at 10:30. And then you’re gone until noon for your appointment,” Grzeskowiak said. “If you’re going to Eugene, your day’s over. But even if your appointment is in town, your day’s over because if you go from 11 a.m. to noon, you have to have lunch. So the parents go to lunch off campus, and then by the time lunch is wrapped up and they’re ready to go, it’s already 1:30 and there’s only a little over an hour left of the school day. And they don’t come back.”
Students already in a crisis end up falling behind in their homework, compounding issues and leading to more outbursts.
However, by having a counselor on campus, the students can attend services without taking off half-a-day of school. It’s a process that the district has already tried, bringing in counselors from Options Counseling and Family Service to Siuslaw Middle School on certain days a week to see a group of students back to back.
“That way, kids don’t have to miss, parents don’t have to run back and forth. We don’t lose anybody for attendance, and it works,” Grzeskowiak said.
The services expected to be offered at Siuslaw are meant to be limited.
“This isn’t a true psychiatrist's office,” Grzeskowiak said. “This counselor will not be able to make a full diagnosis. But they would be able to screen and recommend secondary counseling to a true psychiatrist or psychologist, as it fits. It’s a lot of helping kids with problem solving, emotional regulation, and how to really interact with your peers and your adults in a bigger role. That’s really a lot of what it comes down to. But we’re not going to bring kids in and 20 minutes later you’re walking out with a clinical diagnosis. That’s not the goal.”
Instead, the WLBHN counselor will be an intermediate step where students can either develop coping skills on campus or be referred to either Peace Harbor or a provider in Eugene for assistance.
The counseling center will also hope students and their families navigate the myriad of different resources that are available to those seeking mental health assistance.
“The receptionist does double duty as a licensed clinical social worker, so they are helping families get lined up and get their paperwork done and complete,” Grzeskowiak said. “That’s the other barrier. Even if you can get an appointment [with an outside specialist], you might not have insurance, or the right insurance. And there’s a variety of different programs that can help people from all economic levels. The problem is, people don’t know where to start on how to get into the paperwork system. And that’s what our licensed clinical social worker can do — come in and help families get lined up for the services they need.”
WLBHN has already hired a nurse practitioner for the program and is currently searching for a social worker. The two will travel together between Mapleton and Siuslaw districts, with two days spent in Florence and two days in Mapleton. A fifth day will be devoted to office time for paperwork and processing.
In addition, Mapleton is looking to expand the services of the counseling center, incorporating some clinical services and first-contact medical screening for all people in the community.
Both centers are expected to open this fall.
“This is a fantastic, game-changing boost for these communities,” Hawkins said. “Providing these critically needed services, right in our local schools, will make a huge positive difference for children and their families. We can’t wait to get these clinics up and running.”