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While Other Districts Struggle, This Indy Suburb Puts Counselors In Every School

Jill Sheridan
IPB News

Fishers High School sits nestled between golf courses and subdivisions on the north end of one of Indiana’s most affluent “donut county” Indianapolis suburbs.

Located in Hamilton County, north of the city, Fishers has one of the highest median household incomes of any city in Indiana, and Money Magazine recently named it one of the best places to live in the country. Teens here may seem to have every opportunity, but health and mental wellness are are problems in even the most prosperous towns.

According to the city’s Mental Health Task Force, in 2015, police responded to 157 immediate detention calls, which refer to a situation in which a person is in such danger they need to be involuntarily transported to a safer location. And in 2016, the district responded to 116 students who expressed suicidal ideation last year in school.

However, the suburb is taking the mental health of their students to the next level, thanks to a mayor’s and community’s commitment to address the issue, schools included.

“We were able to start this year with a mental health counselor in every building,” said Mental Health Coordinator for Hamilton Southeastern Schools Brooke Lawson. Thanks to a 2016 tax increase referendum, the district, which includes Fishers High, was able provide mental health services at all its 21 school buildings. Lawson says the district is lucky — her position is not usually on district payrolls in Indiana.

School counselors help students by providing guidance in personal and social development, academic achievement and college and career readiness. And even though at a ratio of 350 to one, HSE has more counselors per student than the state average, the number is still lower than the American School Counselor Association recommendation of 250 to one.

Lawson said school counselors can make the right connections with students early on — and that can mean an issue that may otherwise escalate gets addressed before it becomes a problem. And it makes sense to put a place where students can address stress or find an open door to talk where students spend a huge chunk of their time.

“We know that school is the best place for students to receive that support,” said Lawson.

“I hear all around the state how parents, students, teachers and staff aren’t open to students receiving mental health services in the schools,” said Lawson. “I think we’re lucky in our community because our mayor started the conversation.”

Fishers Mayor Scott Fadness kicked off a citywide stigma-free mental health campaign two years ago. He said he was struck by how many people in his community were having mental health problems as well as the city’s high suicide rate: In recent years, 11-14 residents died from suicide annually.

A planning grant from the Lilly Endowment last year helped the schools conduct a survey about the district’s counseling needs. Hamilton Southeastern School Foundation’s Freedom Kolb said the survey data was just confirmation of what schools already knew.

“Our community is underserved by public mental health support,” said Kolb. “Our students are at a higher risk for anxiety, but what it really confirmed for us is that our counselors where really stretched very thin, doing an assortment of work.”

That frontline support system isn’t always available. Indiana has one of the lowest rates of counselors per students in the nation, said Indiana Youth Institute President and CEO Tami Silverman: a rate of 541 students to one counselor in 2014, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. And other districts lack Hamilton Southeastern’s rapidly-growing population and affluent residents, who voted overwhelmingly to double their property tax rate to assist the area’s schools.

“When you think about that one individual counselor trying to work with a caseload of 500 students … it’s overwhelming,” said Silverman.

The IYI helps to coordinate the Lilly Endowment grants that went out to 57 Indiana schools this year — used in part to help schools research identify problems within their existing programs. The foundation has committed nearly $27 million over five years to close the gap that prevents counselors from providing the support students need.

Silverman said in her discussions, one issue stood out:

“The schools have said they need help in the area of social and emotional needs of students,” Silverman said. “Those needs have grown so complex over the past few years. They acknowledge that the well-being of their students is foundational to all other work.”

According to data from the IYI and Annie E. Casey Foundation, 30 percent of Hoosier high school students report feeling sad or hopeless for two weeks or more, a result of pressures to succeed, social media scrutiny, bullying, poverty or substance use disorders.

Silverman said the Lilly counseling grants have already sparked change in the form of simply talking about school’s needs.

"Many of the schools hadn’t had robust conversations about what does comprehensive counseling look like,” she said.

And the conversations aren’t just happening among adults. Both Fishers high schools have stigma-free clubs for students, said Brooke Lawson. Dozens of students belong to organizations such as Stigma-Free HSE, whose Twitter account retweets several news stories about celebrities — Zayn Malik, Lady Gaga — talking about their mental health struggles.

“Those students have the goal of creating a community in their school that is open to talking about mental illness and mental health, [where] people aren’t afraid to reach out and say ‘I’m struggling with anxiety right now and need some help,'” Lawson said.

This year Hamilton Southeastern Schools received the Lilly Endowment’s largest gift, $2.8 million, due to their size. It plans to use part of the money to implement a comprehensive counseling model.

This story originally appeared on Indiana Public Broadcasting partner stations.