School mental health services stretch to meet increased need, staff says

With increasingly severe emotional disorders seen among students, resources for mental health services in public schools do not adequately address the county’s needs, according to one school official.

Symptoms of mental illness have grown more intense in recent years and are seen at much younger ages, said Ann Hammond, the county’s supervisor of psychological services and school therapists. But Frederick County Public Schools’ budget restrictions have kept school mental health staff from increasing to accommodate the growing demand.

Nineteen full-time school psychologists served in the county’s 51 public schools during the 2000-2001 school year, Hammond said. Though the county has gained 13 public schools since 2001, only one part-time psychologist position has been added.

“Schools often are the biggest mental health providers for children because they are with us for such a large part of the day,” Hammond said. “We’re not keeping up, and that’s just the honest truth.”

More than 3,000 children in the county have some form of mental illness, Hammond said. The school system does not keep statistics of the number of its students with mental illnesses.

School psychologists and counselors deal most often with students who have anxiety issues such as obsessive-compulsive disorder or separation anxiety; mood disorders such as depression; attention-deficit (hyperactivity) disorder and trauma from abuse, neglect or loss of a loved one, Hammond said.

The increase in mental health problems, particularly anxiety and depression, can be linked to the stresses children face as a result of a shaky economy, she said.

“As people lose jobs and have less money, families become less stable,” Hammond said. “Everybody is more stressed. Families are losing homes, families are moving in together, so there’s a lot of people living together in less space.”

Job stress can cause parents to have less patience with or pay less attention to their children, Hammond said. When families lose health insurance, they are less likely to be able to afford medicine or therapy for children.

The school system provides a number of services to help students cope with mental illness, including in-school psychological consultations, counseling sessions, and group or one-on-one teaching. Outside health care professionals are also brought into schools through partnerships with the county’s departments of social and health services.

School system staff conducted 1,369 student psychological evaluations, 51 student threat assessments and 320 suicide interventions during the 2011-2012 school year, according to school records.

About 240 students in Frederick County have emotional disabilities that require special education services, Hammond said.

However, there are other students with mental disabilities who do not need special education because of adequate medication and support by family and schools, she said.

Janet Shipman, who oversees the county’s school counselors, said her staff has tried to “fine-tune” the counseling process by educating teachers and students on the importance of reporting unusual changes in their peers’ personalities.

This helps school counselors reach out to students who may consider suicide, whether or not they have expressed the desire to harm themselves.

The number of elementary students who say they intend to hurt themselves has increased from 53 during the 2011-2012 school year to 64 to date in the current school year, Shipman said. The number of such cases among middle and high school students in the current school year has dropped from 118 to 113 and 149 to 108, respectively.

Despite the decline of suicide threats in middle schools and high schools so far this school year, Shipman said she has observed a general increase in serious mental health issues.

The current ratio of counselors to students varies based on the school, Shipman said. One counselor may be placed in a school with 500 students, while another works in a school of more than 900.

The school system’s fiscal 2013 budget allocated about $6.4 million for student health services, accounting for slightly more than 1.2 percent of the overall budget.

The fiscal 2014 budget request asks for more than $6.7 million, an increase of 6.1 percent in student health funding.

Stretching resources and personnel to meet the county’s needs can be a struggle, Hammond said.

“It’s been very, very hard because we as a system haven’t seen a lot of increases in funding,” she said. “Working within what we have, we do support kids amazingly. We have good people doing their jobs really well.”

School counselors are only a short-term solution, Shipman said, and schools are fortunate to have connections with community resources.

“I know in working with the health department and working with different agencies, there’s a lot of groups of people who are trying to increase awareness, trying to think outside of the box,” Shipman said. “I don’t foresee things getting worse.”

Follow Rachel S. Karas on Twitter: @rachelkaras.


240 students in special education for emotional disabilities

Fiscal 2013 FCPS budget: $6.37 million for student health services

Fiscal 2014 request: $6.76 million

Increase of 6.1 percent

2000-2001 51 schools, 19 psychologists2012-2013 64 schools, 19 full time, 1 part time

2011-12 school year:

1,369 student psychological evaluations51 student threat assessments320 suicide interventions

More than 3,000 children in the county have some form of mental illness