Matthew Devins, a program specialist at Turlock Unified School District’s Special Education Office for the past nine years, works on a daily basis to bring support and services to mentally ill students in the District. Having suffered first hand from anxiety and depression, Devins knows the importance of addressing students’ needs at an early age.
“One of the worst things about mental illness is that if you think about it, you grow up in your head. You don’t realize that you don’t have to experience what you’re experiencing, you don’t have to suffer the pain that you are. You just kind of think that that must be the way that everybody is,” said Devins. “The inclination that I have to not engage socially, or to withdraw and not to talk to people, well you start to kind of look at yourself like ‘I’m weird’ or ‘I’m different’, but you don’t understand that with a little bit of help you don’t have to be like this.”
Devin’s experience is not unique as youth typically do not seek help for mental health problems until 8 to 10 years after they begin experiencing symptoms according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. NAMI is a nonprofit agency that aims to educate the public on early signs of mental illness by partnering with schools and communities. As the past president and education coordinator for the Stanislaus County NAMI chapter, Lynn Padlo is devoted to educating the public on the early signs of mental illness in order to increase the likelihood that those in need will seek help.
“I think stigma is one reason that people do not seek help early on. That coupled with family problems or social problems. People may fear labeling their child as having mental illness or they don’t have access,” said Padlo. “There is nothing shameful about it, we just need to work on educating people about mental illness.”
Recent changes at the county level have afforded TUSD the opportunity to offer more comprehensive services for mentally ill students and their families. In the summer of 2012 TUSD’s Special Education Local Planning Area determined that local districts would no longer have to go through the county to hire clinicians but could hire them directly. TUSD then hired seven clinicians, three of which have been placed at Turlock High School, one at Turlock Junior High School and three at Medeiros Elementary. These clinicians’ services include individual therapy, group therapy, family support, classroom intervention, staff training, and parent training among others.
“Now that we hire our own clinicians the services have been far more comprehensive. We have noticed a huge reduction in our mental health crisis and an increase in positive social skills for our students,” said Jeff Santos, TUSD director of special education. “It has helped tremendously to provide our students this support so that they can overcome their mental health challenges and obstacles which have ultimately led to huge successful gains for our students in the role of mental health.”
Prior to receiving services, students are evaluated based on education code criteria by a multidisciplinary team of school psychologists, mental health clinicians, parents, and special education teachers among others to determine if working with a mental clinician is necessary. Family history, genetics, environmental factors, behavior in school, at home, and in the community all contribute to the evaluation. Only students deemed emotionally disturbed qualify for services with the mental health clinicians.
“When a student is showing the same behavioral patterns in multiple settings and environments that’s when as a team we want to come together and ask ourselves, is this a potential student we need to assess for this handicapping condition?” explained Santos.
Medeiros Elementary mental clinician Racquel Barker is a licensed clinician in social work who has worked in the field for more than 20 years and noted the positive impact that working at school sites provides students.
“Historically you would have a clinician come in, pull a student out, provide their clinical hour of treatment and direct them back to the classroom. The advantage I think we have is that we work collaboratively with administration, with school teachers, with paraprofessionals. We have more hands on, and not to say that outside mental health is not invested but I think we are a more invested piece because we are right here, we’re in the thick of things. So, we work a lot more closely with the families,” said Barker. “We can do a lot more preventative work. If we see a behavior that has a propensity to escalate, we can intervene immediately.”
The TUSD Special Education Department is also making strides outside of the classroom by hosting family nights for parents and guardians of mentally ill students. By increasing access to information through hosting relevant agencies, clinicians, and speakers who work to inform parents on effective ways to engage with their children, these sessions are bridging the gap between the classroom and the home environment.
“Prior to having the clinicians on board we could scratch the surface with the students, but really getting to the full family picture, working with the parents, working with the siblings, and working with the students has been a huge success,” said Santos.
For information on mental illness support, contact the Stanislaus County National Alliance on Mental Illness office located in Modesto at 558-4555. NAMI is also offering a free 10 week peer-led support group for people 18 and older. The group will be held at 6 p.m. on Tuesdays starting Jan. 14 at the Good Shepard Lutheran Church on Minaret Avenue in Turlock.