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Mental Health Specialists Now Working in Every High School

Parents, teachers and mentors of high school students likely recognize these types of scenarios: a student spirals into extreme anxiety because of an avalanche of assignments, another falls into deep depression over a breakup or a fight with friends, and yet another is struggling with questions about how to address gender or sexuality issues. Other students might be suffering silently over turmoil or violence at home, and they don’t know how to process their sadness and fear. Even though our four high schools employ school counselors and social workers, there is rarely enough time among existing staff to listen and advise the many students who need emotional and psychological supports.

In March of this year, after Erich Priest assumed his new position at Chapel Hill High School (CHHS), the full complement of high school Mental Health Specialists (MHS) was in place at all four schools. Their addition to the high school student support teams now elevates the level of mental health awareness and attention above most other high schools in North Carolina, and above most other regions of the country. Since May is Mental Health Awareness Month, what better time than now, to highlight these new professionals who work with adolescents every day of the school week.

Director of System of Care, Janet Cherry, said the Student Support Services Team knew they wanted to look at how our schools build capacity around students with chronic stress and anxiety. The new MHS positions are bringing “clinical expertise into the buildings on a daily basis,” Cherry said. “We see these positions as seamless and embedded in the fabric of student services, working with students, parents, teachers, administrators and community partners/stakeholders.”

The traditional school counselors still operate as the primary and initial points of contact for students, but now they can triage and consult with specialists through referrals, especially for students who are underserved and may not have access to mental health resources outside of school. The MHS staff arrived with many relevant and valuable backgrounds in adolescent support, including addiction counseling and trauma-informed care. However, for ongoing, one-on-one therapy at each high school, the district contracts with Carolina Outreach, Freedom House and Art Therapy Institute to provide co-located mental health outpatient therapy.

Priest said, “This new Mental Health Specialist position is certainly timely, and has the advantage of working directly with students, staff, and families to help increase knowledge of and access to mental health resources, while reducing stigma and barriers. We believe in the resiliency of our students and want to support them as they find the strength and courage to reach out when things get tough. I hope that collectively we can provide students with opportunities to practice making mindful decisions and building meaningful connections, which are skills that can help them find fulfillment now and throughout life.”

The specialist at Carrboro High School (CHS) is Ashley Freuler. She said, “Mental wellness has been directly linked to overall student success, level of school engagement, graduation rates, prevention of disciplinary incidents, and substance abuse; I am incredibly grateful that the district has responded to the immense need to support our students’ mental health with the creation of these positions."

The first high school MHS hired was Ann Murphy at Phoenix Academy High School (PAHS), so she has helped set the standards and expectations for the other three specialists in the larger high schools. During her career as a clinical social worker, she has developed programs and relationships in numerous settings with adolescents. At PAHS, she works closely with Gloria Sanchez-Lane, the school social worker, as well as Eve Vongchucherd, the school counselor.

As an alternative high school, PAHS embraces a holistic system of emotional and psychological care for its 40 students. Many students complete the modules of dialectical-behavior therapy (DBT), in which Murphy is trained and has extensive experience. It’s considered by many to be the gold standard for working with people who have experienced trauma and extreme stress. All PAHS students learn the language and strategies taught by the SPARCS program (Structured Psychotherapy for Adolescents Responding to Chronic Stress), which is closely connected to DBT, designed for adolescents living with significant stressors.

Murphy said the district team will strive to make sure the MHS positions don’t operate in silos. The specialists seem excited and grateful for the opportunity to meet and plan as a team to provide the best possible supports to students at their schools. “Mental health really does impact every other area of student life,” Murphy said, “and it’s a natural fit for all other discussions, from academic success to family issues and discipline referrals. Mental health can be a lens across all these areas.”

Laura Dellicker works as the MSH at East Chapel Hill High School to round out the current team.

The CHHS "Proconian" recently published an article about the addition of Priest to the support team there. Reporter Cassidy England distilled the goals for the positions by noting, “The Mental Health Specialist in each school works to improve the overall mental health in individual students and the school community as a whole, mainly by facilitating mental health initiatives and programs and creating a safe space for open dialogue about mental health.”