A closer look at the mental health services offered in New Hanover County schools
At a recent New Hanover County school board’s town hall, mental health emerged as one of the community’s top priorities. So what do the county and the district offer in terms of these services?
Current resources, federally-funded additions
Through the federal Elementary and Secondary Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER) the district has added more counselors and social workers.
From the American Rescue Act Plan Funding (ARPA) the county doubled the number of therapists working in the elementary and middle schools — now a total of 32, which is one per school. They’ve also just started a new program for infant and early childhood mental health and will have a therapist at Dorothy Johnson pre-K for the upcoming school year.
According to county spokesperson Alex Riley, these 32 therapists serve about 16,500 district elementary and middle school students and saw around 900 children for the 2021-2022 school year.
Elizabeth Redenbaugh, development director for Coastal Horizons, said Wilmington Health Access for Teens (WHAT) provides six therapists at the district’s high schools. They also provide a therapist at Lake Forest Academy — and serve students at Classical Charter, DC Virgo, Girls Leadership Academy of Wilmington (GLOW), and the Cape Fear Center for Inquiry (CFCI).
However, Redenbaugh said, the school community has access to a total of 16 therapists at their school-based health clinics and their facility at Oleander Drive.
Tanya Jordan, who’s been with the district for over twenty years, is the supervisor of elementary school counseling and social work. She said the district has a total of 85 school counselors (32 elementary, 23 middle, and 30 high) and 51 social workers (31 elementary, 9 middle, and 11 high).
What this breaks down to, according to Jordan, is high schools typically have 6 to 7 counselors. Middle schools have one counselor per grade level, and elementary schools have one counselor — and typically every school has a dedicated social worker.
“We’re leading the way. I think that our neighboring counties are a little envious of the number of personnel that we have,” said Jordan.
What mental-health workers are facing
And one of the biggest challenges Jordan and her team sees is the rising number of students who are homeless — there are about 1,200 in the district.
“We had a great, great number of students experiencing homelessness from Hurricane Florence. And then most recently, we've had students who've lost their housing due to the mold issues in some of our public housing units,” said Jordan.
Jordan said in addition to helping these students — she serves as the lead for the district’s Crisis Response Team — a group comprised of counselors and social workers who respond to students and their families who are experiencing grief, loss, or trauma.
“We have been busier this year than in any other year past, we've had a lot of loss,” said Jordan.
Those losses can range from helping students and staff deal with a death — or coping with a neighborhood shooting.
“This year, our team has been out 17 times. This is my sixth year in this role, when I started our first year, we had only had three responses,” said Jordan.
Maggie Kelley is one of the therapists in the district’s elementary schools. She counsels students at Mary C. Williams and sees a wide range of traumas.
“Quite a bit of students [are] in foster care or an adoptive homes, quite a bit of students who have been through social services system through Child Protective Services, [or students who have] experienced emotional, physical, sexual abuse, neglect. You name it,” said Kelley.
While the need is great, Jordan said the district is fortunate to have this number of support personnel, but for Kelley, “If I had it my way, there would be five of me. I feel like I am fulfilling the most acute need. I have 27 active students on my caseload right now, eight of those students will be transferring to middle school this upcoming school year, and I have eight referrals waiting to get in at the beginning of the school year.”
Kelley said it’s best practice to keep her caseload around 25-30 students. Once it gets past 30, then it’s hard for her to see all her clients in one week.
Kelley also encourages families to come in and be part of the treatment if needed.
To see therapists like Kelley in the school system, families are not charged if they do not have insurance. And while the student can gain access to treatment, if she sees a parent or guardian who needs their own mental health support, it’s often difficult to find them assistance.
“Sometimes I give them a referral, and there's a waiting list for months and months and months,” said Kelley.
Donna Fayko is the health and human services director for New Hanover County. She said the county is trying to expand services for adult mental health services, too.
“And there is such a thing as generational trauma, that you have parents who have lived through trauma, and then their children may live through trauma. And if they don't acknowledge and understand the difference, and what's calming and what's acceptable and unhealthy, then they may not know how to teach their children, and that's why it's important to have these outside providers do interventions,” said Fayko.
When asked about the rising caseloads in the district, Kelley said it’s in part because people are becoming more accustomed to asking for help.
“I see it more as mental health is becoming more socially acceptable. There are more mental health services that are being put in place, which is great. And I think people are more comfortable opening up and saying, ‘Hey, you know, I'm struggling with this,’ said Kelley.
But Jordan and Kelley said they also attribute some of this rise to the isolating nature of the pandemic.
Dealing with trauma
In order to deal with these traumatic experiences, Jodi Walker, who’s the county’s clinical therapy services manager, said the district’s clinical therapists use a wide range of methods like art and play, trauma-focused cognitive behavior therapy, emotional interviewing, and some are even certified in EMDR or eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, which helps students to heal from traumatic memories.
“A lot of my students have different physical manifestations of their trauma or their anxiety. So just identifying what exactly is going on — what is that related to helping them normalize, ‘Okay, I don't need to go to the nurse every day, because I'm having a stomach ache. It's not actually something that's wrong physically, but it's my emotions manifesting in that way,’” said Kelley.
But mainly therapists like Kelley are working weekly or bi-weekly on specific exercises to support their emotional development.
Fayko gives an example of what this looks like: “I'll give you a real simple one, look around the room and find 10 different colors. By the time you look around, and you process that information, you've reset your central nervous system to where you now you're calm, you can engage in rational thought.”
Walker offers another way in which therapists use mindfulness practices: “Can I feel my feet on the floor? Can I feel myself sitting in my chair? How do I stay in this moment and not let the world around me get [to me]? When we get stressed, we need to take deep breaths.”
For both Jordan and Kelley, teachers are the ones who see firsthand the students who are struggling and need additional help through a referral to their offices.
“[They] are the first sometimes to see a child with their head down, or who come in looking like something has happened to them or they've had some challenges, or when they see that grade decline,” said Jordan.
“I will have teachers calling me saying, ‘Do you have someone in your office right now, I do have this student of yours, or client of yours, who's a student in my class and they're having a really tough day, do you think you could just pull them for a couple of minutes check in and see what's going on?’” said Kelley.
And district support staff like Jordan teach staff and teachers how to recognize signs of abuse and neglect — how to recognize signs of a student who’s possibly suicidal.
Kelley, too, has had to deal with this, “If I'm with a student, and this has happened, and there is another client of mine who is making suicidal threats, threatening to self-harm, I have had someone come to my office and say, ‘Is there any way that you can continue this current session that you're in later because we really are in a crisis situation,’” said Kelley.
Some funding is running out
ESSER and ARPA funding streams will both run out in fiscal year 2026, ending federal funding for 10 social workers, 10 counselors, and 16 therapists across the district.
Jordan said she’s not aware of any plans to eliminate these positions, and Fayko said the county is already looking at that issue.
“There will be lots of conversation between school officials and county officials, commissioners to determine what the ongoing need is, so we'll cross that bridge when we get there. But we are expecting it and thinking and talking about those things now,” said Fayko.
County commissioners and school board members will have to make these decisions in their upcoming budget meetings, but until then those like Kelley and Jordan will continue their work.
“I do feel like I'm helping the kids, you can see it on their faces, and if they enjoy coming to your office, you must be doing something right," said Kelley.
For Jordan, “I encourage our families to get to know your counselor and social worker because they're valuable resources. We, our team, we're all in it together between the counselors and social workers, the school staff, the teachers, and administrators, but we couldn't do it without the families, the parents, guardians, and the community that meet those needs at home.”