School district adds mental health counselor position

By Oliver Lazenby

Recognizing an increased need for behavioral and mental health counseling in its schools, the Blaine school district hired a half-time mental health counselor who will work in all district schools starting this year.

For Blaine and other small districts, connecting kids with a counselor outside of school can be challenging, said Kaatri Jones, the district’s newly hired mental health counselor. Jones was formerly a counselor at Blaine Elementary School.

Though the district is still defining the job, directors hope to provide students in need with more intense help than previously available. School counselors, who served all students on academic issues as well as social and emotional ones, were overloaded, said district special programs director Randy Elsbree.

The Blaine school district isn’t alone in needing more mental health counseling, Elsbree said. He pointed to increased levels of depression in students nationwide and an increase in homeless students in Blaine and other local districts.

“There are more homeless students, who face more challenges than other students and are at more risk for things that are under that mental health counseling umbrella,” he said. “It’s a dynamic that’s happening all over the place.”

Bellingham and other bigger districts contract with mental health counselors who come to schools during the school day to work with students. In Blaine, kids previously had to get mental health counseling outside of school.

“We have families who aren’t able to make it to Bellingham or aren’t able to make it to Touchstone on a Saturday or a day after school,” Jones said, referring to Touchstone Behavioral Health in Blaine. “Our intention is to break down those barriers in the situations that need it the most.”

For the Blaine school district, getting kids help outside school is still ideal, Jones said. That’s because Jones won’t be able to work with all the students who need it, and because counseling outside of school is a more involved experience for families, she said.

“If a family can take their child into counseling, they’re having some face-time with the clinician when they’re checking in, they’re talking to their kid about it on the way home – it becomes more of a family endeavor,” Jones said. “It’s something they participate in together so there’s more ownership.”

Jones will have weekly meeting with about 20 students in the district. The position will allow her to focus on their needs more intensely than she could as an elementary school counselor serving all students in the building.

Whatcom County Council allocated funds for the new position at its August 8 meeting. The county funds mental health services in all seven school districts in the county and has for the past eight years, said Joe Fuller, program specialist for the Whatcom County Health and Human Services Department.

In previous years, the county provided $90,000 out of its behavioral health program fund to the Blaine school district, Fuller said. The district uses that money to employ an intervention and prevention specialist, train staff in understanding mental health challenges for students, subcontract with outside counselors and for drug and alcohol counseling, among a variety of other things.

This year, the school district is getting an additional $23,400 to fund the new position. While the district has a lot of ideas for the position, what exactly Jones does will be fine-tuned during the upcoming school year, Elsbree said.

“The position is still evolving,” he said. “It’s an exciting venture to head down because it’s been such an increasing need.”

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