School counselors in South Dakota play bigger role with students


Sara Holmberg’s job as a counselor at Dell Rapids Middle School has never been harder.

As the fallout from the pandemic creates what the U.S. Surgeon General calls a “youth mental health crisis,” school counselors like Holmberg find themselves providing not only academic and career counseling, but also emotional support. to students and families. It’s hard to forge so many personal bonds, so schools are exploring ways to complement traditional counseling with professional partnerships to ensure teens get the attention they need.

Holmberg, 38, is one of three trustees in the Dell Rapids School District, which has 985 students. Now in her fourth year at the school, she is the only counselor serving the college, with a staff of around 300. She knows there is no way to provide effective individual counseling to every child, d especially as more students and families continue to struggle with the academic and financial setbacks of COVID-19.

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According to the South Dakota Department of Education, nearly 90% of accredited schools in the state held in-person classes during the 2020-2021 school year, mitigating some of the loss of structure since the when schools transitioned to remote learning for nearly three months starting in March 2020 when the coronavirus first hit the state.

And yet, many students continue to suffer from emotional problems. Nationally, 37% of high school students reported experiencing poor mental health during the pandemic. according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey released March 31, while 44% said they had felt sad or hopeless in the past year.

This continues a trend seen before the pandemic, when a summary of CDC data from 2009-19 found that more than one in three high school students said they had experienced such lingering feelings of sadness or hopelessness over the course of the year. last year that they could not participate in their regular activities, an increase of 40% compared to the previous report.

Washington High School seniors Micah Moran (left) and Matthew Agyeman talk to freshmen about high school success during an outreach series known as Warrior 24.

In South Dakota, suicide was the 10th leading cause of death among all state residents in 2020, but was the leading cause of death among 10- to 19-year-olds, according to the Helpline Center, a suicide prevention agency. statewide. The crisis is particularly staggering for young Native Americans, whose suicide rate is estimated by the South Dakota Department of Health to be 2.5 times higher than the white population, with social isolation during the pandemic increasing the emotional toll .

“The pandemic has put mental health more on the radar and accelerated everyone’s concerns,” Holmberg said after meeting a group of eighth-graders in his office on a recent school day. “Instead of being part of a substantive conversation, it brought those concerns to the fore and in many ways became our primary focus.”

Involve the students

Leah DeHaan, a student at Platte-Geddes High School, recalled her reaction when the school launched a student-led “hope squad” to fight suicide and encourage communication about topics such as depression, anxiety, bullying and abuse.

“I was skeptical,” DeHaan said. “As a teenager who suffered from mental health issues myself, I worried that this would just shift the responsibility from adults to students, as if they were using students as makeshift therapists.”

She had a chat with Platte-Geddes school counselor Sadie Hanson, who allayed DeHaan’s concerns and told her that her voicing them made her a perfect candidate to be part of the Hope. Squad, which now has 15 members split between grades 7 and 12.

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Hope Squad programs operate in 35 U.S. states and Canada, with Platte-Geddes and Flandreau construction teams in South Dakota. Students are asked to name three peers they would turn to if they were experiencing emotional difficulties. These lists help educators select team members, who are trained to recognize signs of suicidal contemplation and depression.

“Studies show that teens who (die by suicide) usually tell a friend they’re considering, but that peer doesn’t always go to an adult or find a resource to help,” said Joel Bailey, superintendent of Platte-Geddes. , adding that the phenomenon may be more pronounced in smaller communities.

Looking for teamwork

At last count, there were just under 25,000 students in the Sioux Falls School District and 66 school trustees, which equates to a ratio of 364 students to each trustee. This is exactly the average for the state of South Dakota and on par with the ratios of neighboring states of Iowa (370:1), Nebraska (369:1) and North Dakota (297:1) . The American School Counselor Association recommends a lower ratio of 250:1.

“Building the new high school (Sioux Falls Jefferson) has helped ratios, but we could always use more support,” said Travis Sieber, who heads the counseling department at Washington High, which has six counselors for 1,870 students. “Sometimes mental health tasks get so overwhelming that there aren’t enough hours in the day to address other aspects of the job, like academic support and post-secondary planning.”

Sieber, in his 14th year at Washington, saw a drop in student performance after the spring of 2020 when classes moved online. This loss of structure and in-person interaction has fostered bad habits that are hard to break, he said, not to mention the pandemic-related difficulties many families face.

“For the first time in any of our generations, adults didn’t have all the answers when it came to safety and housing and a sense that everything was going to be okay,” Seiber said. “It created a sense of heightened anxiety which was passed on to the students.”

Help is available outside of school, with medical providers such as Avera Behavioral Health, Southeastern Behavioral Health, and the Lutheran Social Services PATH program partnering with the school district and supporting referrals. The helpline offers a Text4Hope program that provides crisis text support to all high school students in the state.

For most students, however, having a guiding hand and a familiar face in the hallways of school helps to enhance the educational experience. Sioux Falls used federal emergency relief funds for elementary and secondary schools to add seven additional school counselors for 2021-22, encouraging them to actively engage with students rather than waiting to be consulted.

Focusing on South Dakota Families

At Dell Rapids, Sara Holmberg and her fellow advisors know that encouraging conversations about mental health, where appropriate, is a team effort that extends to households, where real solutions await.

“Even though I could meet all the kids, I don’t know their family dynamics,” Holmberg said. “Everything could be fine one day and there could be a family crisis soon after.”

Dell Rapids Superintendent Summer Schultz began looking for ways to expand the school district’s reach after seeing mental health issues rise to the surface during the height of the pandemic.

In partnership with the Utah-based Cook Center for Human Connection, Dell Rapids is offering “virtual mental health nights” with online support for families from trained professionals. This program will be expanded using ESSER funds to provide a family coaching component, where parents have 24/7 access to consultants who can help them with everything from behavioral issues to establishing a family schedule.

The school district also uses an animated series called “My Life Worth Living” created by Terry Thoren, who helped produce the television show “Rugrats” on Nickelodeon in the 1990s. characters focus on topics such as bullying, suicidal ideation, sexual orientation, and abuse.

“The show does a really good job of modeling for parents,” Holmberg said. “It gives them the language to talk about these things. Sometimes parents don’t want to push too hard, so it serves as an icebreaker.


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