Integration of therapy in schools normalizes mental health services
When Wendler Middle School principal Marcus Wilson heard of an opportunity to bring licensed therapists into select Anchorage School District schools, he was one of the first to raise his hand.
Similar work being done by VOA Alaska, which provides low or no-cost behavioral health services at seven other schools in the district, has shown to be a success, with 89% of youth reporting that the support they received helped them improve their social and emotional skills.
“Getting these types of services inside the school has always been a passion of mine,” said Wilson. “The more training we do on how trauma affects the brain and how it really stunts development, the more we are gaining an understanding of why these services are so valuable.”
It’s not just about helping a child in crisis but also improving their long-term, academic success.
Providence Alaska has used community benefit funding and a grant from Providence Alaska Foundation for three such therapists who are now integrated at Wendler, and Muldoon and Lake Otis elementary schools. Like the therapists at VOA Alaska, these professionals are a support network to students and staff in an integrated, holistic way.
JB Atkinson is Wendler’s therapist. His office is a plant-lined, open classroom in the middle of the school, with board games stacked in one corner, a table by the window, and an array of artwork on the walls. A Providence therapist since 1998, Atkinson said he was excited for the chance in the schools, doing work at the ground level. Here he can see immediate impact.
“What we’re trying to do is destigmatize mental health,” Atkinson said. “This is a model that’s been in schools for years, and it works; it is really about integrating services as part of the school. The teachers need just as much support as the students, and this puts everything in one location.”
There are three tiers of support, Atkinson said. The first tier is where much of his time is spent, providing services wherever needed. He might help supervise an open-gym session, give a presentation on mindfulness, assist counselors and teachers, or simply be a general presence for the school’s 450 kids. For example, Atkinson leads a Mental Health Matters teen group who serve as role models and peer support for all students. These teens are natural leaders who help to normalize the idea that “asking for help” is okay.
“These are kids who are well-grounded and can be a student voice,” he said. “It’s a preventative type of group.”
Wilson said Tier 1 work can stop a potential problem before it raises to emergency level. “We are just out trying to provide that preventative-type mental health support, teaching them to be advocates for each other,” he added.
At Tier 2, Atkinson said he works on targeted interventions with at-risk students who have experienced such challenges as loss of a loved one, bullying or anxiety, among other issues. Atkinson leads support groups, meets with individual students and generally serves as a positive presence.
“You can start seeing some of those warning signs, and with JB on site, he has been able to really catch a lot of our kids — and catch a lot of our kids who normally would not be able to see someone,” Wilson said.
For students experiencing extreme stressors, Tier 3 support is targeted and intensive. Those kids, Atkinson said, become Providence clients and receive full services.
“This tiered model is based on a model used in education called MTSS, or Multi-Tiered Systems of Support,” said Jackie Wallen, program manager of school-based services for VOA. For example, educators use the same approach as they do when teaching grade-schoolers how to read.
“When you teach a whole class to read, you are teaching all of them, like Tier 1,” she said, “but some might need to be put in groups to work on their skills.” That would be the equivalent of Tier 2, she added.
“But maybe that one kid is struggling and needs a reading coach; that’s Tier 3,” she said. “We take that same premise with mental health.”
Wallen said VOA has offered school-based services for several years, and its partnership with Providence therapists has been a success, allowing them to reach more than 8,000 students from elementary to high school across the district.
“We’re sharing information and data, and there is some collective advocacy between the two teams, too,” she said. For instance, 70% of educators and administrators have reported that on-site mental health services have positively impacted academic performance in their schools.
At Wendler, Atkinson said he interacts with about 30 youth weekly, splitting his time among each tier, as well as offering staff support and training.
“I like the tangible, day-to-day impact I see at the school level,” he said. “I like the variety and the longer-term impact being at the school provides.”
Wilson said he likes that the program is convenient. Having on-site services eliminates the need for parents and caretakers to seek out and then get to appointments.
“Transportation, taking time off work, finances — all of these real-life things can get in the way of service,” he said. “You cut out those obstacles, and we can help so many more kids.”
Since the program has started, Wilson said he has noticed students being more open to just stopping in and talking to Atkinson, taking part in daily conversations that may seem casual but in reality, are on-the-spot therapy sessions that help them navigate difficult times.
“It does my heart good to see kids who have really been struggling with issues in their life since elementary school now be able to work on those issues and get the support of a professional right here,” he said. “It’s looked at as just a normal any-old-day service that anybody can receive. There’s no stigma that goes with anyone who goes down to [see] JB.”