Student mental health issue gets revisited by Monticello School Board

Monticello board members participated in a far-reaching discussion Monday that addressed District 882’s response to recent student mental health issues.

Superintendent Jim Johnson provided an update that included key comments from guidance counselors.

The discussion was slated as a scheduled agenda item.

Counselor Therese Olson and Social Worker Annette Bienick represented Monticello Middle School at Monday night’s school board meeting.

They spoke at various times during the discussion, along with Pinewood Elementary School Principal Brad Sanderson and Cindee Hoberg, Monticello High School counselor.

“It’s been a difficult year for our district,” Johnson said. “We talked about the need for coming together, and a week ago today [Monday, May 9], we hosted a meeting that included 34 people. That meeting took place at Monticello High School. We had representatives from CentraCare Health-Monticello, Central Minnesota Mental Health was there, and we had representatives from the recently formed Community Mental Health Task Force, a group that’s formed as a grassroots effort. Many of our churches in town were represented as well.”

According to Johnson, a number of school administrators and counselors attended the event.

“This issue is so big, but one of first things we did was review school resources. What came across to me was that as a district, we are dealing with mental health issues across the board, and we are no different than anybody else.”

Johnson said nationwide, at all age levels, mental health is becoming an issue. “We see it in our colleges and universities,” he said.

“Recently, there was an article in a Twin Cities newspaper two or three weeks ago that said the 15 to 30 age level is where society was seeing a huge increase in mental health issues. We started our discussion at the elementary school level,” Johnson said. “The first thing that our staff talked about was how we were dealing with issues.”

Johnson said school staff work to help students with grief and anxiety and family change. All of those stress-related events can lead to mental health issues at an early age.” Johnson said there were a lot of counseling referrals coming from students and staff at the elementary school level.

“That’s much different that it used to be,” Johnson said. “Counselors work with parents right away to get the needed resources, but we are limited in what we can do. There are things we can do, but we see a lot of kids during the year. Kids come through our doors with a lot of baggage,” Johnson said. “That’s just the reality of the world today. We have many kids who are dealing with at-home stressors. They bring those through the door and into the classroom.”

Johnson said it’s impossible for kids to drop their mental health issues or leave them at the door when they enter school.

Monticello Middle School staff runs a proactive wellness day event that covers a variety of topics, including mental health. The seventh grade class has brought Text for Life into school and other presentations.

Olson said the number students who are living with relatives or within foster homes has increased dramatically in the Monticello school district.

“We also have families that are dealing with homelessness issues. All of that adds so much complexity to what our kids are dealing with. Resource-wise, it’s a lot of referrals to outside agencies.”

Bienick said she’s seeing a lot of kids who just don’t want to talk in a group setting about mental health issues.

“They want individual time, and that taxes a lot of our time, too,” she said.

Johnson asked Hoberg to address mental health at Monticello High School, mentioning the current student-to-counselor ratio of  one counselor to every 400 students.

“That’s a very huge challenge,” Johnson said.

Hoberg said Monday night that the district has good relationships with mental health experts who work at the county level.

“When I came to this district years ago, we didn’t have that,” she said. “It’s very different now. They are our go-to people, whether it’s a public health nurse or someone working with truancy. We work together really well. It’s not about people in our building. It’s getting very complex and huge.”

Olson said students’ increasing use of social media has created another dimension for school counselors.

Johnson said in terms of short-term suggestions for improving mental health, District 882 staff will continue to work with local health care providers such as CentraCare Health-Monticello.

“One of the things we are trying to do quickly is centralize phone resources,” he said. “The hospital is going to take the lead on that, to get phone numbers and website links out there on the various sites. People will be able to reach mental health care information online from many different locations. We will also send out resource lists out at the end of the school year, getting them into parents’ hands in the next couple of weeks,” he said.

Finally, next year at Monticello High School, Johnson said staff wants to rework the daily schedule to provide more hands-on counseling time with students. “We want to provide more of a mid-day break that can be used to for academic help as well as offer resources that can deal with these issues.”

Contact Tim Hennagir at [email protected]