When Ali Harshaw heard about a new mental health counselor opening in the Albemarle County school division, she knew that’s where she needed to be — a place with hundreds of students and families through the doors each day.
“That’s where my heart was,” said Harshaw, who joined the Stone-Robinson Elementary staff this year after working as a licensed marriage and family therapist.
She said she wanted to better help students who are struggling with their mental health without families having to pay out of pocket or jump through other hoops.
“Our schools have become the unintended mental health systems for a lot of students,” she said.
To bolster that system, the Albemarle school division used more than $2 million in federal stimulus funds to create a 25-person team of mental health professionals who are tasked with working with students and families, especially those who have more significant needs. The additional counselors are part of the division’s learning recovery plan, a response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
One person from the team is stationed at each school, and 21 counselors have been hired so far, according to Miles Nelson, the division’s coordinator of mental health and wellness.
Nelson said the additional mental health professionals in the schools will build relationships with students and families, identify their needs and help to connect them to services in the community or school system.
The counselors’ immediate focus is students who need additional support outside of the classroom, Nelson said. Those tier-two students make up about 15% of the division’s enrollment.
The counselors, or social-emotional learning coaches, hired so far have a range of credentials and experience, which they are using to shape their role and respond to the specific needs at a school.
Because it’s a new role, the schools and counselors have flexibility to define it. So far, the middle school counselors are focused on staying in touch with students who are quarantined because of a possible exposure to COVID-19, while others, like Harshaw, are working in the classrooms.
“All of them are already so busy just meeting the needs of students,” Nelson said.
The mental health counselors also help to coordinate each school’s Check and Connect program, which the division instituted in the initial days of the pandemic to ensure that each family received a regular phone call or message.
The counselors join an array of mental health supports in the buildings, from school counselors to psychologists to social workers, though not every school has a social worker.
Nelson said the school counselors, principals and teachers have been thankful to have another mental health professional in the buildings this year.
“We all knew mental health was going to be big, and it is big,” he said. “While it’s exciting that we have the support in place, it is still always a little wrenching on your heart knowing that students are struggling.”
Nelson said the position’s sole responsibility is to families and students, which Harshaw likes.
“The nice thing about the mental health roles is we aren’t responsible for a lot of the more administrative tasks that sometimes the school counselors have to do,” Harshaw said. “So our role can really be focused on a lot of direct service. I’ll also be pushing into the classes, and helping kids to learn different strategies that are set in the school counseling curriculum.”
That includes teaching students social-emotional skills such as self-awareness, self-management and decision making. Part of the school division’s learning recovery plan focused on addressing students’ social, emotional and mental health needs, which have increased during the pandemic.
“All evidence shows that kids who have appropriate mental health interventions and support are going to do better academically, are going to have healthier relationships, are going to have less behavior problems at school, and are going to learn those coping strategies to get through difficult situations in life,” Harshaw said. “It’s so important.”
Harshaw said her work in the classrooms is similar to teaching students the skills to work through a math problem.
“A lot of kids don’t know what they’re feeling,” she said. “Just educating kids that this feeling might be anxiety or this feeling might be the result of trauma or it might be a result of depression.”
Now that the counselors are more settled, Nelson said he’s starting to work on ways to track how these new positions are meeting students’ and families’ needs, especially as the division used one-time funding for the roles.
“Because I really think that this is gonna make a very big impact on our county, and I want to be able to show how much of an impact these mental health professionals in the school can have and what they can do for our students,” he said.