BETHEL — The coronavirus pandemic and distance learning has pulled concerns about youth’s mental health into sharper focus.
But students at Bethel middle and high schools now have access to therapy and mental health services on campus.
“I absolutely think that access to care in the schools is critical, definitely in this pandemic, but before the pandemic, too, and after,” said Dana Schmitt, the clinician at the school-based health center, which opened this September at the schools.
“A lot of times kids are so busy after school,” she said. “Parents are working. It’s really hard to get kids to therapists. And it’s such a great opportunity to have this kind of therapy, outpatient therapy in the school.”
The center operates at no cost to the district, with the care paid for through families’ insurance. Students without insurance are still accepted for free.
“Access is key,” said Jane Hylan, director of school based health services for the Community Health Center, which operates almost 180 of these centers in the state. “All the barriers are down.”
Some school-based health centers, such as the one in Bethel, offer only behavioral health. Others provide medical, dental and mental health care. Danbury and Newtown also have these centers, which are operated by the Connecticut Institute for Communities.
Bethel started working on bringing the center to the schools before the coronavirus pandemic hit Connecticut. But officials said the resource has become even more valuable as students battle feelings of isolation.
“The mental health of our students, with what’s going on in the world, is our No. 1 priority, that and students’ physical safety,” said Bryan Watson, the middle school principal. “The school-based health center is one component of that.”
Issues like anxiety and depression were already a concern.
“It’s not that much different than pre-COVID,” Schmitt said. “But I think it’s just heightened post-COVID.”
In a survey taken in spring 2019, 24 percent of 950 Bethel eighth through 12th graders reported being depressed and 10 percent reported attempting suicide.
The principals said Schmitt enhances the work their staff does with students.
“It supports what we’re trying to do to help our kids that are either in the building or at home,” said Chris Troetti, the high school principal. “With the pandemic on top of it, keeping track of students wellbeing is paramount to us.”
Schmitt works in the high school’s counseling office, which leads to greater collaboration between her and the staff, Troetti said.
The high school has four counselors, two social workers, one school psychologist and one substance abuse counselor, he said. The middle school has three counselors, one school psychologist and a social worker, that principal said.
Schmitt focuses on teaching the students’ techniques, such as deep breathing, to manage stressors. A virtual group program will also be available, which will allow students and friends from different cohorts to see each other.
Schmitt is serving as the full-time clinician for both schools, but another clinician is expected to start by Nov. 1 at the middle school. Schmitt will then work with the high school only.
She meets with students in person and over the Zoom platform, often later in the day or after school.
“Because of the hybrid model, I don’t want to take them out of any of their core classes because of how little time they get in school,” Schmitt said.
She virtually sees students who are on distance learning full-time, as well. Students may also be enrolled virtually.
“It’s pretty immediate,”Hylan said. “If someone needed care, even perhaps as early as this afternoon, we potentially could link them up to Dana if she has space in her schedule.”
So far, five high school students are enrolled, with three others expected to sign up. Three middle-schoolers are registered, while two others are in the wing, Schmitt said. She expects to have around 40 to 50 clients.
These numbers are a little bit higher than typical this early, in part because the clinician is in two schools and Bethel may have been prepared with students to refer, Hylan said.
“Bethel was very receptive and ready for us,’ she said.
Six to eight other schools are interested in creating similar centers, Hylan said. Most of the schools became interested right before the pandemic or shortly after it started, but the way the Community Health Center has adapted to telehealth has been a draw, she said.
“The fact that we have become so confident in telehealth means we can meet the demand, regardless of whether the kids are on site or continuing school from home,” she said.
These centers also help reduce the stigma of seeking mental health treatment.
“(The clinician) becomes just part of the pattern of the school,” Hylan said. “Kids go to see her and often times (they say), ‘I go to see her and you should go to see her, too.’”