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County mental-health program focuses on middle schools

County mental-health commissioner Tara McDonald.

The mental-health needs of school-aged children and adolescents have been increasing for the past decade. Kids have been experiencing stressors at home, at school, and in the community. Although advancements in technology have helped improve the lives of all of us, it’s no surprise that certain aspects of these changes have had adverse effects for many. The pandemic only exacerbated a problem. In 2021, the U.S. Surgeon General issued an advisory on protecting youth mental health — highlighting the crisis across the country. 

Ulster County has seen trends that track like the rest of the country. On June 21 of this year, the county legislature unanimously passed a resolution to allocate a portion of its federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) and opioid settlement funds to support more mental-health resources in schools.  

“There has been a significant uptick in the number of students and families who need mental-health, social and emotional support,” said Charles Khoury, district superintendent for Ulster Boces. 

The needs were unclear

County mental-health commissioner Tara McDonald expresses a similar sentiment. “In our county, we could use more clinical opportunities for kids. Our clinics tend to be full with wait lists. So that’s challenging. But if we can support kids in other ways and more around the social determinants of health, then maybe they won’t need that clinic appointment to talk about the social determinants of health.”

Knowing that ARPA funding would come to both schools and the county, McDonald and her team started discussions with Ulster Boces and personnel from the nine school districts in the county. Their aim was to support students as they began to re-enter classrooms following virtual learning. 

“We started conversations with school districts and leaders during the tail end of the isolation period of Covid in the 2020-2021 school year …. We wanted to really provide support to the districts as the kids would be coming back to school,” said McDonald. 

The needs were unclear. “I’ll never forget that the schools were sort of like ‘We don’t know what we’ll need. We haven’t seen the kids face-to-face for well over a year, and we just don’t know what that will look like.’ So our conversations started with ‘What were students struggling with before the pandemic?’ ” McDonald said. 

Those discussions led to the formation of a new county program, Mental Health in Schools, to focus on the junior-high and middle-school level.

McDonald said that the middle-grade focus was chosen due to the developmental trajectory of the age group. “Middle school is a difficult time,” McDonald said. “Kids are in this transitional period leaving elementary school but going to high school, and in that middle time because of all the changes going on biologically and developmentally, it was really a place where the schools unanimously thought to put some focus.”

According to the World Health Organization, adolescence takes place between ages 10 and 19. It is a time in a young person’s life between childhood and adulthood when it is most important to create healthy habits to build upon a solid foundation.

“The more we can support kids now who are struggling and overwhelmed, that’s one less kid that might seek out drugs or other negative behavior patterns to quell that overwhelming feeling,” stressed McDonald.

The right partner

Ulster County will partner with Albany-based non-profit LaSalle Schools to implement the countywide program during its pilot year. LaSalle, founded 168 years ago by the De LaSalle Christian Brothers, is a residential school for boys which offers preventive and therapeutic day services, education, and supportive services to youth in need. 

LaSalle Schools has experience providing after-school services in Ulster County. “They already have a small understanding of the nature of our county and what it’s like to provide community-level care here,” said McDonald. She expressed confidence in LaSalle Schools as the right partner for the county. “The beautiful marriage between knowing how the education system works through running their own school and being able to do the clinical work to translate into the community was it for me.”  

LaSalle Schools and Ulster County are working on hiring mental-health teams for each school district. Each team will consist of a licensed/clinical social worker and a case manager who will, take on caseloads together. Each district will be paired with another district. Pairings are based on geography: Onteora/Saugerties, Rondout/Ellenville, New Paltz/Highland, and Wallkill/Marlboro. Kingston, the largest of the school districts, will have its own team and will take 20 cases at a time.

The referral route

A referral system in each district will serve as the starting point. Referrals to each team will come from the district through teachers or other support staff. 

The Department of Mental Health and LaSalle Schools are working directly with the school districts to come up with unique criteria specific to each student population. “Each school is so unique, and we want to make sure we are as responsive to the needs of each district as possible,” said McDonald.

McDonald and her team acknowledge that the rural nature of the county presents challenges. The program is not a one-size-fits-all. “Right now, health insurance and Medicaid dictate where someone can go for mental-health services,” she said. “The beauty and opportunity of this program are that we can be really nimble. We don’t have to be as strict on referral criteria, and can shift depending on various needs. 

“With the Mental Health in Schools program, the county has made a commitment to each district  acknowledging that each district and school is different. We are saying ‘Tell us how you believe we can best fit the need of the student.’ ”  

According to an Ulster County press release from June 22, “Teams will provide face-to-face sessions with the youth, family support sessions with the youth and their parent/caregiver, ongoing communication with school staff, linkage to community resources, and coordination with other providers including but not limited to mental health, juvenile justice, social services, primary care, etc. The program will be voluntary, free of charge, and youth and parents/caregivers must provide consent to participate.”

When to seek help

If you live with a child or adolescent and are concerned for their well-being, the Ulster County Department of Mental Health has provided red flags/warning signs that a young person may be in trouble: 

• A victim of bullying (both at school or home)

• Few or no friends, isolating behavior

• Notable change in behavior (more withdrawn, angry, etc.)

• Making statements or jokes about a mass shooting or targeted homicidal statements or jokes

• Interest in weapons and firearms

• Hopeless thoughts, not future-oriented

• Suicidal behavior

• Self-injurious behavior

• Substance use

To learn more about Mental Health in Schools contact the Ulster County Department of Mental Health at 340-4110 or Students and parents are encouraged to ask their district’s director of pupil personnel services about the program.

If you are a licensed mental-health clinician and are looking for a great opportunity to work in the school system consider applying! Lasalle Jobs, Employment in Kingston, NY |