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U Matter in UCPS: Mental health resources

May is National Mental Health Month. Mental health is our emotional and social well-being, and it affects how we think, feel and act. It aids in social interactions, decision-making, stress management and many other activities. This month is a reminder that mental health deserves as much attention as physical health. 

Union County Public Schools prioritized social and emotional learning and equitable access to critical mental health resources before the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result of the pandemic, there is a greater need for student mental health support. However, families may not always know what is available or who provides it. 

Students and families can access many resources through UCPS' Student Support Office. The team serves in several different mental health roles. Depending on the need, who is involved and the provided support may differ. 

What are the roles of the student support team?

The district currently employs nine mental health therapists, with the Union County Behavioral Health Collaborative (BHC) providing an additional 11. There are nine UCPS social workers, and the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) provides 14 more. There are 131 school counselors and 12 school psychologists. School nurses are also available and play a role at times.  

Students have the most contact with school counselors. They provide all students with counseling lessons in problem-solving and character-building that benefit their academic, career, personal and social development. In addition, they offer situational and educational counseling as needed.

School social workers connect and coordinate family and community support services. They can also provide brief counseling or therapy to individuals, groups and families. 

School psychologists assess and interpret evaluation results for special education, high-risk status and learning needs to determine appropriate recommendations. They provide staff training for the Exceptional Children process and intervention strategies and support.

Mental health therapists conduct individual group therapy, diagnose and provide ongoing treatment, provide family therapy and refer to outside mental health agencies.

Regardless of their role, they all provide crisis intervention and trauma-informed care. Frequently teamed up to ensure that students and families receive what they need. These professionals are familiar with local resources and also support schools and staff.

Partnerships like those with BHC and DHHS help the district meet students' needs and improve and expand district offerings. It also contributes to the development of staff capacity.

Additional resources for staff, students and families

UCPS values staff development. During the 2018-2019 school year, more than 200 UCPS support staff members received Suicide Intervention Protocol (SIP) training. The training, designed to help staff respond to a student having suicidal thoughts or engaging in non-suicidal self-injury behavior, continues. All student support staff must complete it and attend an annual refresher training.

The lead mental health therapist, Katina Reyes, and the lead social worker, Belle Walker, agree that supporting staff is as vital as students.

"Our goal is to focus on our student support teams in the school buildings. That is the central part of our work," said Reyes. "It allows us to serve students and families better."

Walker also said that their teams' well-being is not overlooked.

"We have book studies, team-building activities and brain breaks," said Walker. "Most importantly, we lean on one another."

Students are at the forefront of what we do. Most recently, UCPS received federal funding to provide contracted supplemental health services to boost and expand existing support for mental health. The Union County Board of Education approved a virtual school-based therapy program with Atrium Health for high school students. The district chose the following high schools to participate in the first phase based on currently identified needs: Forest Hills, Monroe, Parkwood, Piedmont and Sun Valley. 

"The telehealth piece shows promise. We know we need more support," said Kasha Giddins, director of student support. "We have to be willing to be creative when the time calls for it. It's an opportunity to think outside the box and work to put more services in front of students."

Families need support, too. This year, five free workshops were available from February to May to provide parents with the resources and tools needed to help navigate difficult situations. The topics—grief, trauma, suicide awareness, becoming a tech-healthy family and family wellness—were chosen as the most relevant to many families. Presenters included licensed social workers, therapists, counselors and nurses. 

Stacy Swanson, the mother of a Weddington Elementary student, said the parent education series was beneficial. Her husband had experienced a situation where a coworker's child had died by suicide. Her husband was shocked by the news and told her, "I don't even know what to look for." 

It prompted him to attend the UCPS suicide prevention workshop to get information. 

"He couldn't necessarily relate to those in attendance. However, he received good information and came home with some materials. I hope these types of workshops continue and grow," said Swanson. "Our daughter has gone to see her school counselor for things like someone not wanting to play with her or when she needs to express some emotion. I'm glad she feels comfortable doing so and that there are people available to help her."

For more general information and resources, visit the Student Support Office link. For more specific services, contact your child's school. Parents, students, staff and community members are also encouraged to use the UCPS Tip Line to share feedback, give kudos or report a safety risk. Students can also report information through the Say Something Anonymous reporting system