Finding ‘Peace of Mind’ in Humboldt schools
I. THE SETTING
A few years ago, when Cody Haviland was an undergraduate at Kansas Wesleyan University, a professor from Harvard spoke to Haviland’s class about the current state of mental health care in Liberia.
Wesleyan, along with higher profile universities like Brown and Harvard, was part of a volunteer initiative charged with providing mental health services to the small, war-ravaged West African nation. Dr. Patrick Lee described the effects of trauma — the levels of anxiety and depression, the incidence of suicide, the rates of substance abuse — on a country that had only recently emerged from two violent civil wars.
But this isn’t a fate unique to the more ravaged portions of sub-Saharan Africa, Dr. Lee told the students. There’s a crisis at home, too. To prove his point, he directed the students’ attention to one patch on the world map where the prevalence of mental health issues coupled with the limited access to care was comparable to that found in Liberia.
Here, Lee said: southeast Kansas.
Haviland sat up in his chair. He was from southeast Kansas, from Chanute, and had plans to return to the area after graduation. That fact entered Haviland’s brain like a shot arrow and lodged there, and is lodged there still.
II. THE SETUP
It was 2013. Misti Czarnowsky had only recently completed her master’s program at Emporia State University and was in her first year as Humboldt’s school counselor. A typical counselor’s duties are wide-ranging, often cumbersome, and include seemingly mismatched tasks, from attending to a pupil’s emotional woes to helping students with test prep. It was the same for Czarnowsky.
But on this day, all her thoughts converged on a single point. A student was in the midst of an acute crisis that involved talk of suicide and an attempt at self-harm.
Czarnowsky did all the right things. She contacted the parents, the student’s teachers, a local case manager. She arranged a series of meetings with all of the concerned parties. And she consulted the local mental health center.
But the distance between the school and the town’s mental health center — though in reality less than a mile away — felt, at that time, enormous. “Trying to get ahold of the therapist was always very difficult,” recalled Czarnowsky. “When we would call from the school side to see if we could get an appointment for a student, it would take weeks if not a month to get them in. What we needed was to figure out a plan for [this student] that would work here at school. So there were a lot of roadblocks to actually getting students mental health care.”
Comprehensive on-site mental health training was not a part of Czarnowksy’s education anymore than it was a part of the educations of any of the other teachers or administrators in the building that day.
“It just blew my mind that we never made the connection that mental health services should be available in the schools,” said Czarnowsky, “given that’s where students spend the majority of their time,”
And so she acted.
In 2016, after researching pilot programs in other parts of the state, Czarnowsky applied for a grant from the Kansas City-based Health Forward Foundation that would allow for the introduction of a therapist and case manager into the Humboldt schools. That grant was denied. But she stuck with it and applied again, and in 2017 the Humboldt school district was awarded the funds to employ a full-time therapist and children’s case manager from the Southeast Kansas Mental Health Center.
Since that day, other districts — Iola, Moran, Yates Center, Erie — have adopted similar programs in conjunction with SEKMHC.
In fact, in the spring of 2018, Kansas lawmakers passed a pilot program, which, in pairing a handful of school districts with their local community mental health centers, sought to approximate in other parts of the state what Humboldt had so effectively accomplished under its own power.
By any measure, Humboldt’s “Peace of Mind” program, as it’s been dubbed, is a success. Since its inception, scores of students who’d never received services from the local mental health center are benefitting from these services for the simple reason that they’re available at school. Plus, the district’s discipline referrals are down by a factor of three as are the number of students who are considered “at risk.”
On Monday, the district will host its first “Peace of Mind Festival” from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. at Humboldt High School, where the main event will be a presentation by mental health advocate and crisis intervention expert Jeff Yalden.
While the immediate, in-house successes of the Peace of Mind program are obvious, explained Czarnowsky, one is always battling the larger, social misapprehensions that trail any discussion of mental health.
And so if there’s a signal purpose to the event Monday evening, the counselor continued, it’s to encourage a more open conversation about mental health, and to help shatter the lingering stigma, which for too long has been allowed to stand in the way of care.
III. THE STIGMA
“I think we see mental health as weakness,” said SEKMHC’s Clinical Director Doug Wright, who was instrumental in helping Czarnowsky forge her winning grant in 2017. “We see a physical problem as something that happened to us, but we see a mental problem as something that’s wrong with us. … If you get the flu, nobody blames you for getting the flu. But if you become depressed, people wonder what’s wrong with you as a person.”
And the force of that misperception may be more pronounced in places like rural southeast Kansas, said Wright, where “we have a very individualistic culture and where seeking help, even with medical doctors, isn’t something we tend to do.”
By offering mental health services inside the schools, however, going to see a therapist “became just another school activity,” said Wright. “It was no longer a big deal.”
The relocation of services has seemed to ease parents’ minds, too. Where before a number of parents had expressed nervousness about neighbors seeing their cars parked outside the mental health center, it’s nothing to be seen going in and out of your child’s school.
“There’s always been a recognition that this corner of the state has a lot higher incidence of mental illness and substance abuse,” said Wright. “Plus, this is a very poor part of the state with very limited access to healthcare in general.”
But none of these statistics can be taken on their own. The truth is that they form a terrible alloy. If a person is abused as a child, he may find that the quickest way to reduce that lingering pain is by self-medicating through alcohol or drugs, which, if he becomes addicted, will make it difficult for him to find a job, which will ensure his continued poverty, all of which, in turn, will most certainly create an unstable home life, which, if he has children of his own, could end with him perpetuating the exact same cycle of abuse from which he sprang. The sequence can be overwhelming.
However, by introducing students to the grammar of mental health care at an early age — giving them a language to discuss their specific turmoil and a program for addressing the factors that underlie it — Humboldt’s Peace of Mind program, by jamming a wrench in the gears of generational suffering, has the potential not only to reduce the stigma on a case by case basis but to alter the district’s entire culture of care.
That third-grader who comes to realize that mental health treatment is just another option in his arsenal of well-being — same as visiting the school nurse — will eventually become an eighth-grader who doesn’t bat at an eye when the topic is his own anxiety. And that eighth-grader will become a senior in high school, who will eventually become a productive member of the community. And when his daughter comes to him because she wants to visit the school therapist, he’ll understand its rewards because they were his benedictions, too.
“I think in the next 10 or 15 years we can really see those cycles start to break,” said Wright, “and then we can really see the numbers drop for this area — in terms of suicide rates, in terms of substance abuse, in terms of foster care. That’s my real hope for this program.”
IV. THE SUCCESS
After graduating from Wesleyan, Cody Haviland did eventually return to his hometown of Chanute, where he signed on with SEKMHC. Today, he is the children’s case manager for USD 258. Addison Gardner is the district’s therapist.
In most cases, a student who is experiencing difficulty will be referred to Gardner by Czarnowsky. Czarnowsky will contact the parents and, after describing the shape of the student’s concerns — whether it’s a mild case of anxiety or a more severe behavioral matter — she will then explain the professional mental health services on offer in the school.
All services are billed on a sliding-scale basis through the Southeast Kansas Mental Health Center, and are covered by private insurance as well as Medicaid.
Gardner’s first appointment is with the student’s parent or guardian. “After that,” the therapist explained, “I’ll bring the kids in on a scheduled basis. We’ll talk about things that are going on. If there’s something that I feel like the parents need to be working on, I’ll reach out to the parents and say, ‘Hey, I met with your kiddo and this is what we were talking about. I think it would be best if we don’t talk about the divorce that’s going on in front of the child. Or maybe we don’t share that we are constantly having anxiety about finances.’ And most parents are responsive, most parents really do want what’s best for their kids.”
Haviland’s role, then, is to help students implement whatever new coping skills they’ve learned and to offer support in a classroom setting. Prior to moving into the school, Haviland found that the aid he could offer a student often came too late. “A lot of the problems that would happen at school, I wouldn’t find out about until the kid was suspended. Or mom and dad would call me. So I find it very helpful to be in the school — to be there as a problem arises and hopefully de-escalate it before it goes to the principal’s office. … It’s also helpful to be here to observe in the classroom; to see, ‘OK, this kid responded to the teacher’s voice inflection or mannerism this way or responded to something a peer was doing.’ It’s an extra set of eyes to help communicate with the teachers.
Another essential piece in the success of Humboldt’s mental health program is fourth-year elementary school principal Staci Hudlin, who, between her unstinting support of the Peace of Mind program and her own implementation of daily character education training in the school, has helped reshape the culture of the building. “I totally believe that in order for a child to be able to learn and to be successful at school, we can’t just focus on the mind. We have to focus on the heart, too. If their well-being is OK, they’re going to be better learners in class. But, right now, we have kids coming to school every day with issues that would break your heart.”
Hudlin recalled the case of a student who had been the victim of sexual abuse. “The ramifications of that just affect every aspect of everything they do.”
Because of the new structure of mental health care at Humboldt, however, the student has access every day to Gardner, to Hudlin, to Czarnowsky, all of whom are intimately involved in the student’s well-being. Where, previously, they would have had to miss school to attend appointments at the mental health center, today they simply walk down the hall.
“We’re integrated in the help we give,” said Gardner. “We’re a team.”
“A kid is much more likely to work for you, if they know you care about them,” said Hudlin, “if they know you’re excited for them to be there. If they know you love them.”
V. THE SILVER LINING
“Over the years, I’ve seen a number of adults who I’m treating for PTSD whose trauma stemmed from a childhood abuse,” said Doug Wright, who has been with SEKMHC for nearly 20 years. “But they never received any treatment all these years later. And I hear the stories of how that’s affected their lives. Multiple divorces. Substance abuse. Incarcerations. And it’s really because they’re experiencing these trauma symptoms that were never dealt with. And in my time in the mental health center I’ve seen hundreds of these cases. It’s not an isolated incident. And so I think this is the key: I see adults who didn’t have access when they were kids.
But, hey, we can change that. We are changing that.”