Current resources, federally funded additions
Through the Federal Elementary and Secondary Schools Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER), the district has added more counselors and social workers.
Since American Rescue Act Plan Funding (ARPA), the county has doubled the number of therapists working in elementary and middle schools — now a total of 32, or one per school. They also just launched a new program for infant and young child mental health and will have a therapist at Dorothy Johnson pre-K for the next school year.
According to county spokesman Alex Riley, those 32 therapists serve about 16,500 elementary and middle school students in the district and saw about 900 children for the 2021-2022 school year.
Elizabeth Redenbaugh, director of development for Coastal Horizons, said Wilmington Health Access for Teens (WHAT) provides six therapists at high schools in the district. They also provide a therapist at Lake Forest Academy – and serve students from Classical Charter, DC Virgo, Girls Leadership Academy of Wilmington (GLOW) and Cape Fear Center for Inquiry (CFCI).
However, Redenbaugh said, the school community has access to a total of 16 therapists at their school health clinics and at their facilities on Oleander Drive.
Tanya Jordan, who has worked in the district for over twenty years, is the guidance and social work supervisor at the elementary school. She said the district has a total of 85 school counselors (32 elementary, 23 middle and 30 senior) and 51 social workers (31 elementary, 9 middle and 11 senior).
According to Jordan, it boils down to the fact that high schools typically have 6-7 counselors. Middle schools have one counselor per grade level, and elementary schools have one counselor — and usually each school has a dedicated social worker.
“We are leading the way. I think our neighboring counties are a bit envious of the number of staff we have,” Jordan said.
What do mental health workers face?
And one of the biggest challenges that Jordan and his team see is the growing number of homeless students — there are about 1,200 in the district.
“We had a large, large number of homeless students from Hurricane Florence. And then, more recently, we’ve had students lose their homes due to mold issues in some of our public housing,” Jordan said.
Jordan said that in addition to helping these students — she leads the district’s Crisis Response Team — a group of counselors and social workers who respond to students and their families experiencing bereavement, loss or a trauma.
“We’ve been busier this year than any other year, we’ve had a lot of losses,” Jordan said.
These casualties can range from helping students and staff deal with a death or coping with a shooting in the neighborhood.
“This year, our team has been absent 17 times. This is my sixth year in this role, when I started our freshman year we only had three responses,” Jordan said.
Maggie Kelley is one of the district’s elementary school therapists. She counsels Mary C. Williams students and sees a wide range of trauma.
“A lot of students [are] in foster or adoptive homes, a good number of students who have come through the social services system through child protective services, [or students who have] suffered emotional, physical, sexual abuse, neglect. You name it,” Kelley said.
Increase in the number of cases
While the need is great, Jordan said the district is lucky to have that number of support staff, but for Kelley, “if I had it all, I’d be five. I feel like I’m meeting the most acute need. I have 27 active students on my workload right now, eight of those students will transfer to college this upcoming school year, and I have eight references waiting to come in at the start of the school year.
Kelley said it’s best to keep her workload around 25-30 students. Once past 30, it is difficult for him to see all his clients in a 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 aren’t charged if they don’t have insurance. And while the student may be able to access treatment, if she sees a parent or guardian who needs their own mental health support, it is often difficult to get help for them.
“Sometimes I give them a referral, and there’s a waiting list for months and months and months,” Kelley said.
Donna Fayko is New Hanover County’s Director of Health and Human Services. She said the county is also trying to expand services to adult mental health services.
“And there is such a thing as generational trauma, that you have parents who have gone through trauma, and then their children can go through trauma. And if they don’t recognize and understand the difference, and what’s soothing and what’s acceptable and unhealthy, then they may not know how to teach their children, and that’s why it’s important that these outside providers are stepping in,” Fayko said.
Asked about the rise in cases in the district, Kelley said it’s partly because people have become more used to asking for help.
“I see it more as mental health becomes more socially acceptable. There are more mental health services 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,” Kelley said.
But Jordan and Kelley said they also attribute some of that increase to the isolating nature of the pandemic.
Coping with trauma
In order to cope with these traumatic experiences, Jodi Walker, manager of clinical therapy services for the county, said clinical therapists in the district use a wide range of methods such as art and play, cognitive behavioral therapy focused trauma, emotional interviewing, and some are even certified in EMDR or Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, which helps students heal from traumatic memories.
“A lot of my students have different physical manifestations of their trauma or anxiety. So just pinpointing exactly what’s going on – what does that have to do with helping them normalize, ‘Okay, I don’t have I don’t have to go to the nurse every day, because I have a stomach ache. It’s not really something that’s wrong physically, but it’s my emotions showing up that way,” said Kelley said.
But mostly therapists like Kelley work 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 very simple one, look around the room and find 10 different colors. The moment you look around and process this information, you have reset your central nervous system to where you are now calm, you can engage in rational thought.
Walker offers another way therapists use mindfulness practices: “Can I feel my feet on the ground? Can I feel myself sitting in my chair? How can I stay in this moment and not let the world around me become [to me]? When we are stressed, we need to breathe deeply.
For Jordan and Kelley, teachers are the ones who see first-hand students who are struggling and need extra help by referring them to their desks.
“[They] are sometimes the first to see a child with their head down, or who come in feeling like something has happened to them or they’ve had a hard time, or when they see that grade drop,” Jordan said.
“I’ll have teachers calling me and saying, ‘Do you have anybody in your office right now? Do you think you could just pull them for a few minutes to check in and see what’s going on?’ , Kelley said.
And district support staff like Jordan teaches staff and teachers how to recognize the signs of abuse and neglect — how to recognize the signs of a student who may be suicidal.
Kelley also had to deal with this: “If I’m with a student, and this happened, and there’s another client of mine who makes suicide threats, threatens to harm themselves, I I had someone come to my office and say, ‘Is there any way you can continue this current session later because we’re really in a crisis situation,'” Kelley said.
Some funding is running out
The 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 in the district.
Jordan said she’s not aware of any plans to cut those positions, and Fayko said the county is already looking into that.
“There will be a lot of conversations between school officials and county officials, commissioners to determine what the continued need is, so we will cross that bridge when we get there. But we expect it and we think and talk about these things now,” Fayko said.
County commissioners and school board members will have to make those decisions at their upcoming budget meetings, but until then those like Kelley and Jordan will get on with their work.
“I feel like I’m helping the kids, you can see it in their faces, and if they like coming to your office, you gotta do something good,” Kelley said.
For Jordan, “I encourage our families to get to know your counselor and social worker, as they are valuable resources. We, our team, are all in the same boat between counselors and social workers, school staff, teachers and administrators, but we couldn’t do it without families, parents, guardians and the community who meet these needs at home.