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Middle school is a tough time for many kids. And for students who are dealing with mental health issues, middle school can be down right painful. Consider the story of a student here in Southwest Missouri…we’ll call him Johnny Doe. He has faced teasing and bullying since he was in elementary school.
Johnny says, “In third grade, I had to get glasses because I couldn’t see the board. Of course, after that, I got teased. I was always skinny and short. Got teased about that. They just wanted to nit-pick at anything they could. It was usually just kids annoying me because they would say rude things and treating me rudely like flicking rubber bands at me from across the room.”
Johnny says this teasing and harassment caused him to be very angry. Sometimes he would lash out verbally. Sometimes he would lash out physically by hitting other students.
Johnny says, “After I had would lash out, they would pick even more because they wanted me to do it again.”
As the bullying increased, so did Johnny’s anger. Add to that the more difficult schoolwork he was encountering in middle school…and you can see why Johnny was relieved when he began visiting a school-based clinician, a mental health professional who could provide counseling to Johnny at his middle school. And even that was hard at first because it gave some of the other students another reason to jeer.
Johnny says, “Kids are just that way. They like to find your weaknesses and pick at the, like scabs. ‘Oh, you’re going to see the counselor. You must be a bad kid. You must have something wrong with you.’ Quite honestly, it made me want to punch them.”
But Johnny soon learned from his counseling sessions that punching them was not the best way to deal with his anger.
Johnny says, “He would ask me to come down sometime during class. We would talk about things that had been going on since the last visit. I’d tell him about projects I was doing, whether they were school related or not. It gave me an outlet to tell him about my frustration that I’d have. Like bullies, if some kids were bugging me, he’d give me advice for that. Basically, he gave me some methods on how to deal with things that might have been going wrong during those times…counting and breathing methods to keep my calm because I had an issue reacting to my gut reaction to punch them.”
This kind of in-school counseling is what Matt Bowers does as a school-based clinician at Nixa Junior High and Republic Middle School. Just to clarify--Matt Bowers did not work with the young person whose story you’ve just heard. But Bowers works with students dealing with similar issues. He says having the ability to counsel students at school is important.
Bowers says, “The whole idea behind school-based mental health is we want to go where the kids are. It’s valuable because in community-based settings, a lot of times there are long waits for appointments but in school-based setting, we’re an immediate resource for teachers. We can consult with teachers, develop a plan and find out what’s going on.”
School-based clinicians like Bowers are not able to prescribe medications. Instead, they’re considered front-line professionals who try to prevent the development of more serious mental health problems. Bowers says many students can benefit from counseling.
Bowers says, “It doesn’t have to develop into a clinical thing before counseling is effective. Let’s catch it very early and teach them some skills. A counselor’s job is not to treat the seriously mental ill. That would be a psychologist. A counselor’s role is a preventative role.”
Bowers says when students have mental health issues that require more intense therapy, he refers them to community resources where they can receive the help they need. But for many students, counseling is a good fit as they go through some difficulties in their pre-teen and teen years.
Bowers says, “Teenagers years are the time of identity formation and development. Sometimes, it’s like trying to navigate through a maze and they need a guide to help them figure out the rough spots. And sometimes it’s a bumpy ride. They’ll try a behavior for a while and that runs them afoul of school or sometimes the law. That’s my job too is to help them navigate those rough spots.”
Bowers says his goal is to prevent students from making bad choices, like doing drugs, drinking alcohol, or being physically aggressive. He says those behaviors can lead to serious mental health problems down the line.The effect of school-based counseling is evident in talking with the student we’re calling Johnny Doe. Now that Johnny is in high school, he says he can see the impact of those counseling sessions he had in middle school. And he reflects on what might have happened if he had not connected with a school-based clinician.
Johnny says, “It could have possibly gotten worse because I could’ve kept storing that anger and frustration with these kids. And it probably would’ve built up and I would’ve continued having explosions. I’m just really thankful for what I got and that I’m not like that anymore.”
Join us this afternoon at 4:30 as we look at how Springfield Public Schools deals with mental health issues facing students now that the district no longer has funding for school-based clinicians.