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Positive posters hang in the hallways at Tri-County Public Schools. Ten school districts in southeast Nebraska are using the Educational Service Unit 5 mental health program, which provides one-on-one meetings with students, family therapy in crisis situations, suicide risk assessments, providing training to staff, assemblies discussing mental health topics, and discussions with staff and outpatient clinics.

Southeast Nebraska schools have integrated a new program to help students and faculty improve their mental health.

Educational Service Unit 5 piloted a mental health program which now serves 10 school districts in Gage, Jefferson and Thayer counties. The program provides one-on-one meetings with students, family therapy in crisis situations, suicide risk assessments, providing training to staff, assemblies discussing mental health topics, and discussions with staff and outpatient clinics.

Jennifer McNally, a mental health program coordinator and psychotherapist at five of the school districts, said the program started during the 2017-2018 school year.

“Dr. Brenda McNiff, who is our administrator for the ESU, reached out and talked to superintendents and districts about things that they were interested in having in their schools and programs,” McNally said. “One of the key things that was brought up in those conversations was having a mental health program to support kids with some mental health needs within the school.”

McNally explained that she would visit with each school district once a week, and by the end of the year the schools were wanting an additional day, and two more schools were wanting to join the program.

“There will be four clinicians [hired] within a two year span, which is really pretty powerful, and I think pretty telling of how much this program has really become a valuable asset for school systems,” McNally said.

Official said the program is something that's needed in schools.

“I believe the program’s been something that has been needed for a while now,” Matthew Uher, the secondary principal and activities director at Tri County Public Schools, said. “Really, we could probably go three or four days a week. What I’ve seen happen is not only the impact it’s had on kids, but also adults. To provide support that kids and adults don’t have normally on an everyday school basis.”

McNally said that’s the goal.

“When ESUs reach out and ask us what are we doing here that’s different, I think my answer is always consistently ‘we really look at wellness for all,’” McNally said.

Jesse Gronemeyer, the Tri-County elementary principal, said that the program has helped students come to school feeling better about themselves.

“And when you feel better about yourself, you’re going to learn at a much higher rate,” Gronemeyer said.

“Here in the building is where the kids feel the most comfortable,” Randy Schlueter, Tri-County’s superintendent, said. “So we bring in somebody to meet them here where they feel comfortable, and they’re far more willing to really open up to somebody about what’s taking place in their life that’s affecting them.”

McNally explained that she most often handles students who are stressed and don’t know how to express or manage it.

“Not just academic stress, it’s social and emotional stress,” McNally said, “and who can [they] talk to in the building who is not your teacher or your friends? Sometimes you just need that outside person to just hear you, validate that you’re going to be ok, and maybe some strategies to help with that then touch base throughout the day.

“We know through the Adverse Childhood Experiences study that was done through the CDC, that the risk factors for kids ages zero to 18 can really influence their adulthood with more absences from work, higher uses of drugs, higher suicide ideations. But we can focus in and we know those risk factors when they’re in our care, and involve them and their caregiver within that process, to build that trauma narrative so they can move forward.”

McNally said that each school has a universal mental health referral form that anyone in the building can use if they or someone they know need to speak to the clinicians. She said she gets parents involved if a student needs more complex care. They usually meet with high school students for 20-25 minutes, and elementary students for 10-20 minutes before returning them to class.

“We aren’t going to take kids out of the classroom for an hour at a time, because those academics are just as valuable. We need to have that,” McNally said. “In crisis situations, we will obviously do whatever we need to do, because kids aren’t ready to learn when they are in crisis.”

Jamie Mapp, a school psychologist and mental health clinician with ESU 5 explained that they don’t meet with students regularly throughout the school year.

“If they need it, we do,’ Mapp said. “We can do short-term, we can increase our frequency. That’s also a benefit of providing services in this school. If there’s a kid I need to see twice a week, I can access them twice a week. It’s already here and it’s in their natural context.”

McNally explained that as summer approaches, they are intentionally meeting with students less.

“From April to May, they have all these different coping skills, problem solving skills, their teachers have a full-scale of awareness for a child, let’s see what they can do a little bit on their own,” McNally said. “Sometimes they do a really excellent job, and sometimes we know that they need additional support. So if we need to look at an extended school year for kids, if we feel like they’re going to regress to the point that it would be really detrimental, that’s a conversation that absolutely we would have.”

McNally said the amount of growth and support the program has received in its two years of operation has been validating.

“I’m just really honored and humbled by all of the outpouring of support that we continually get from within the school and our community patrons and schoolboard members,” McNally said. “It’s beyond what I would’ve anticipated when we started out, so that’s just been so rewarding.

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