Proposed bill could provide more mental health resources in Del. middle schools

DELAWARE – Some of the First State’s legislators are hoping to get more mental health resources to public school students. House Bill 300 would establish a mental health services unit in Delaware’s middle schools. “I think we have to sort of rebrand and demystify what mental health services actually are, and what they can mean for individuals and families,” said Seaford School District (SSD) Director of Student Services Dr. James Bell.

Strengthening Existing Support

Dr. Bell says SSD offers individual and family counseling sessions through a referral process with four partnering agencies. The schools are also equipped with teams that identify wellness needs. Staff also underwent de-escalation training, and can take advantage of yoga, meditation, and relaxation rooms.

Even with all those resources already in place, Dr. Bell says the legislation would only help to bolster the help available. “It will help put the focus where it needs to be, and add additional resources. That’s ultimately what we are looking to do: continue to build the model that we have here in Seaford,” he said. “We just want people to understand that this is something that’s easily accessible. You just have to 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. CHSD recently hired additional mental and behavioral health staff. They also have an outside group that helps with referrals. But, Shockley says on top of those existing resources, they simply need more hands on deck. “The more mental health providers we have within the school, can help us get away from the reactive realm, more in to that preventative and proactive realm,” he said.

Mental Health In The Spotlight

In fact, the increasing need for mental health services in schools has been reflected across Delaware. That’s according to 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 the COVID-19 pandemic on top of that, and Kradjel says those needs were only shoved into the spotlight. “The last few years have been really difficult for students when it comes to their mental, social, and emotional health. We spent a long time feeling isolated, feeling 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 challenges have come out of that.”

Shockley says he’s seen students missing out on key transitional periods of their life, like advancing 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 storm of COVID-19 brewed, Kradjel says it wasn’t just students struggling to keep up with their mental health; the staff in the schools also found themselves facing an ever-growing caseload of students needing help. “The second another mental health provider is added to a school, their caseload is just totally filled,” said Kradjel.

That’s why Kradjel says she’s hoping to see House Bill 300 passed, and more people made available to provide mental health resources. “If the load is lighter in the middle schools, the load is lighter in the elementary schools, and the load is lighter in the high schools,” she said. “The kids are learning coping skills that may be leaving class and going to see somebody. That might be great, but by the time they get to high school and adulthood, they really need to be handling their mental health challenges on their own.”

Looking Ahead

As of now, the bill is still making its way through committee hearings. If it is passed, the legislation would go into effect upon being signed into law.

Until then, school professionals say there are ways to help students navigate mental health. “You’re not alone. You should try and collaborate and consult with those mental health providers that are school based,” said Shockley. “More than likely, they’ve seen it before and they can offer some great advice, potentially even have a couple of different stakeholders come together so we can talk about how to best serve those needs.”

Dr. Bell says that sentiment echoes in SSD. “I think providing mental health services for people in need is something that shouldn’t go overlooked,” he said. “It’s not anything wrong with them. It’s a situation where we need to just connect them with someone who they will be able to talk to, and work through situations.”

Categories: Delaware, Education, Health, Local News, Local Politics