UW to train teachers proper mental health services as demand grows

Nov 16, 2022, 3:31 PM | Updated: 4:13 pm
mental health...
(Photo courtesy of UW Bothell)
(Photo courtesy of UW Bothell)

After health officials have been reporting a dire mental health crisis facing schools statewide since before the pandemic, a new program from the University of Washington (UW) Bothell aims to better equip educators in helping their struggling students.

“We are very lucky to be living in Washington state, but we still have a lot of homeless students,” said Robin Fleming, Ph.D., an assistant teaching professor at UW Bothell. “We have students that have PTSD, depression, anxiety, suicidality, and we can help them.”

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Fleming, the co-director of the behavioral health initiative from the UW Bothell School of Nursing and Health Sciences, is one of the faculty members organizing the university’s push for more mental health training in schools. She has a Ph.D. in educational leadership and policy studies and a Master’s Degree in community health nursing from UW Seattle.

The program was launched after numbers provided by the university showed youth feelings of anxiety and hopelessness have skyrocketed. The program will help the university’s goal to train high school educators, a position that is expected to serve as more than just a teacher to an embattled generation, according to Fleming.

“We’ve also had this massive opioid epidemic, we have had students that have been orphans because their parents have died, and we’ve had some younger people die as well, and just the gun violence,” Fleming said. “I really mean everything and the chaos of the world these past two years.”

Fleming used to be a school nurse, years before the pandemic. She said they were already stretched thin before COVID-19, and now, they’re getting overwhelmed.

“School nurses, for many students, are the only health care they get, which is wrong,” Fleming said. “But, it’s a fact, so we need more school nurses. We need more funding for school nurses. We need more funding for mental health counselors.”

Across the hall in counseling offices, the staff agreed.

“It’s really difficult to find providers in the community that aren’t already full on their caseload,” said Cricket Sutton, a school psychologist at Meadowdale High School, who believes more students are dealing with anxiety now and struggle to find help off-campus.

Educators in the Puget Sound region have been sounding the alarm, sometimes in unison, chanting along a picket line. Striking union members in Seattle and Kent demanded more counselors in schools and lower caseloads — often hundreds of students per counselor.

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Leaders in the state have repeatedly emphasized their intent to equip schools with more support to better handle students’ mental health needs. Governor Jay Inslee said it’s an issue that must be addressed.

“We got to help kids with mental health challenges, we have to help kids who have some chemical addiction problems to learn,” Inslee said in a press conference. “You have to have those problems resolved or addressed or you can’t help a child learn algebra.”

So what’s being done about it?

Beyond the university’s program, Meadowdale High School (MHS) recently joined the growing list of Washington education centers to open an onsite health clinic of its own.

Inslee visited the site Oct. 24 and heralded its ease of access for students.

“We know there’s a mental health crisis for our kids and having it available in your school where you don’t have to get on a bus and cross town to see a mental health professional is extremely effective,” Inslee said.

The clinic at MHS is operated in part with help from local healthcare professionals, but it was propped up using funds passed by the state legislature. The clinic plans to provide mental health services along with physical, behavioral, and even dental care.

After the UW Bothell initiative delivers schools their training modules, Fleming said it’s up to the districts how to disseminate it. But regardless, she said more funding for programs like Meadowdale’s and her own are desperately needed across the state.

“If we understand the value that these nurses and mental health counselors bring to our schools, we will find the money,” Fleming said. “I’ve heard so many times we can afford it, yes we can.”

And if Washington officials don’t allocate the funding?

“Look where we’re at,” Fleming said. “We’re not getting better, we are getting worse.”

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UW to train teachers proper mental health services as demand grows