Counselor stresses increased support for students
By Natalie Johnson
The COVID-19 pandemic and social distancing that came with it – a necessity for staying physically healthy until vaccines are widely available – has taken its toll on many adults’ mental health.
But children and teens are also facing an increase in rates of anxiety and depression, brought on by losing the structure and social connections provided by school for much of the past year.
“A lot of anxiety, heightened anxiety, particularly social anxiety,” said Sean Fitzpatrick, a school-based mental health counselor at Okanogan Behavioral Healthcare (OBHC) assigned to the Methow Valley School District, of what he is seeing in Methow schools.
“We’re diagnosing a lot of adjustment disorders – people who are struggling with the change in their norm,” Fitzpatrick said.
The district has been able to have Fitzpatrick’s services full time since November through a partnership with OBHC, which also provides mental health counselors in Oroville, Tonasket, Omak, Okanogan, Brewster and Pateros school districts as well. In the future, they hope to add counselors at Grand Coulee, Lake Roosevelt and Nespelem schools as well, said Jacquelyn Wiman, director of Child and Adolescent Services at OBHC.
The school-based mental health program was created about six years ago. Today, across the county, 260 students are enrolled in formal counseling through OBHC.
Methow Valley was one of the most recent school districts to get its own mental health counselor on site.
“It’s been a goal of ours to do so for quite some time, the challenge has been finding the right person to fill that role,” said Methow Valley School District Supt. Tom Venable. “We’re just so fortunate to find that person in Sean.”
Crosby Carpenter, principal at Liberty Bell High School, echoed Venable’s statements.
“Initially the pandemic made our ability to identify and support students more expediently more difficult, but I feel like we’re rounding the corner,” he said. “Having access to a full-time district mental health counselor is a game changer and something that should be the norm, not the exception. We’re so grateful for our partnership with OBHC and thrilled to have Sean as part of our team.”
Before being assigned to work out of the Methow School District last November, Fitzpatrick moved to the area three years ago from Portland, Oregon, and worked as a designated crisis responder at OCBH.
“It is a nice opportunity for me to focus a little bit more on my closer community, my neighbors,” he said.
Adjusting to online
Part of the struggle for children and teens has been adjusting to online school, which isn’t ideal for many students. Fitzpatrick said MVSD’s efforts to safely bring students back to class have been helpful.
“They’re doing an incredible job. It’s amazing these kids are able to be in school right now. The school district is rocking it,” he said. “That said, if a kid misses a week, we won’t see them for a week and a half. That’s 10 days without a school counselor or teachers or anybody with their eyeballs on those kids. It’s easy for kids to start to slip through the cracks when we’re not able to see them as often.”
Seeing a child is one thing. Seeing their face is another, Wiman said. She recounted a conversation with a teacher about a particular student who was struggling. The teacher told her that with masks on, it’s hard to tell a child’s facial expression or attitude.
Counselors have also seen situations where one struggle spirals into more problems.
“Obviously we’re seeing a lot more depression as well. Definitely an increase in lack of motivation,” she said.
A lack of motivation often leads to poor grades, even among students who did well before, Wiman added.
“That kind of impacts their self-esteem, their self-image,” she said. “Some of the ways we treat depression as therapists is increase your social connection, increase your exercise. Unfortunately, right now some of that’s just not an option.”
Fitzpatrick said he often works with parents as well, some struggling just like their kids. The first step to help is simple, he said. And the best way to reach out for help is through the school counselors.
“Honestly, one of the best things you can do is talk with someone,” he said. “Especially when we’re all isolated and not having a lot of social isolation, we can get really stuck in our heads. We can get stuck with beliefs that aren’t the most healthy or productive.”
Here to Help
If you’re struggling, reach out. Okanogan County Behavioral Healthcare’s crisis text line is available by texting HOME to 741741, and is free and available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The 24 hour crisis line is 1-866-826-6191 or 509-826-6191