Executive Director of Elementary Education for USD 253 Vicki Schweinler (left) addresses the Board of Education during a regular meeting while Assistant Superintendent Rob Scheib and board member Mallory Koci listen.

The USD 253 Board of Education heard from CrossWinds Counseling and Wellness representatives at its Wednesday meeting.

CrossWinds provides behavioral health services to Emporia’s school district as part of a partnership between the two organizations.

During the meeting, members were briefed on several measures CrossWinds officials are taking in local schools, which board member Mallory Koci appreciated.

“I think it’s great to be able to meet students where they’re at,” Koci said. “I think one of the issues with seeking any kind of counseling is that it’s one more thing to do. And trying to make that fit into a busy family schedule or busy school schedule, I think that having that integrated help at the schools themselves is really a part of the kind of key work that we’re doing.”

She believes making it clear to everyone involved that caring for students’ mental health is part of the process of transitioning them into healthy teens and then to healthy adults, not an ancillary added extra.

“If a child is struggling with mental health or with emotional issues, of course that’s going to affect their learning,” Koci said. “And we can’t expect teachers to address all of their needs. So by being able to integrate that into our schools, we’re not to only help those children with their entire lives, but also help their educational outcomes, be able to help their learning.”

Koci said there has been an increase in mental health symptoms showing up in children even at the elementary school level.

“I do know that building principals and teachers have reported an increase — and especially in elementary schools — seeing kind of behavior outbursts, seeing students who have, maybe, a hard time kind of processing their emotions and so that’s happening more on the elementary school level,” she said.

However, this is not as alarming as it may seem.

“I think instead of it being an increase in maybe the prevalence of it, I think that moreso we are recognizing (mental health issues) as a society, so we’re seeing more and more cases,” Koci said. “So we’re seeing more cases because, as a whole, society is recognizing more what mental health looks like, or maybe when people need some extra help.”

In other words, it’s not so much that mental health issues have increased among children and young adults. It’s more that the symptoms are being recognized for what they are by more and more people. Students receiving help from mental health experts in school is not something to be alarmed about, she believes, but rather it’s a good thing.

“It means we recognize the signs earlier and maybe intervene at an earlier age, which then I think, for a lot of children as they grow into teens and adults, means they have better outcomes in terms of their being able to lead happy and healthy lives,” she said.

In any event, Koci believes mental health issues aren’t anything students ought to be ashamed to address.

And these days, they’re not, as was discussed during the meeting.

The subject was brought up that teenagers are much more aware of the existence of mental health issues and more open to discussing them than past generations.

Koci said she believed it was a good sign that children and young adults had chosen not to sweep such issues under the rug.

“It’s hard to have hard conversations with young people,” she said. “Especially about things like mental health. We maybe want to focus on positive topics, but I think it’s important to be real with those kiddos and with teenagers and even adults about what they might experience in their own lives, or even use that awareness to help people around them.”

About one in five people suffer from a mental health issue of some kind, she said.

“If it’s not you, then maybe it’s one of your four friends,” Koci said. “So I think that it’s important to be open about these issues and to not put a stigma on it, because having a mental illness or having a mental health issue should be treated (as) the same thing as having a physical health issue. So, if you go to the doctor because something’s wrong with you physically, you should be able to go to a therapist or a counselor if you’re also struggling emotionally or mentally.”

Providing these services to those in need within USD 253 is a step toward normalizing mental health care, Koci feels, and improving outcomes for kids.

“I think it’s a vital component to just our community’s health to be able to not only talk about how we can ensure our children’s success in their academics, in their physical needs, but also their mental and emotional needs,” Koci said. “I really am thankful that we have such a great program like CrossWinds, and I look forward to seeing what else we can do with it.”

During the meeting, the board also held officer elections. Member Art Gutierrez was elected to serve as the board’s president and member Melissa Ogleby, who was unable to be present at the meeting, was elected vice president. Both newly-elected officers will serve until Jan. 2020.

The board also talked briefly about the upcoming bond election and the town halls being held, which Superintendent Kevin Case said were well-attended. An informational meeting about the bond will take place at 6 p.m. tonight at Emporia Middle School. Further town hall meetings are at 7:30 a.m. July 23 at Trusler Business Center and again 6 p.m. July 31 at Emporia High School.

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