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COVID federal funding will expire. How are schools investing in student mental health for the long term?

La Moille High School
La Moille School District
La Moille High School

Students in the La Moille School District don’t have a full-time school social worker or psychologist. For tiny, rural districts like La Moille -- which has only 170 students -- that’s not unusual. Rural schools are much less likely to offer mental health services than urban and suburban schools.

37% of high school students in the U.S. report regular mental struggles.

Katie Shevokas is a part-time school counselor at La Moille High School. She says they really needed a social worker.

“We have had such a significant increase in mental health needs amongst our high school students. Well, not just our high school students, all students in general,” she said. “The only kids that get services are the ones with IEPs.”

Now that’s going to change. Shevokas recently helped La Moille, along with a consortium of six other rural districts, win a $6.8 million federal grant to bring more mental health support to their students.

Shevokas says it was her first time ever writing a federal grant. But she thinks teaming up with other small schools in desperate need of these services helped them stand out.

“Also, it’s that we're in a rural area," said Shevokas. "The statistics were astounding. Our kids are really in jeopardy for depression, anxiety, and substance abuse."

The School-Based Mental Health Servicesgrant through the U.S. Department of Education will help all seven rural Illinois districts hire and retain mental health staff and increase the number of providers serving students.

That includes five school social workers, a counselor, a behavior interventionist, a school psychologist and screeners. It also funds professional development opportunities, social-emotional curriculum and parent outreach. There’s also a licensed mental health professional who will split their time between five schools.

Just in La Moille, they’re getting their social worker, along with two extra mental health professionals one day a week. On top of that, they’ll be able to retain social work services they already provided to special education students.

Retention is a crucial part of the equation. Denise Aughenbaugh is the principal at Mendota High School, another rural district which is part of the grant. She says federal emergency relief funding, called ESSER, has helped them add more mental health support staff over the past few years of the pandemic.

They’ve brought in outside counselors to give students one-on-one counseling at school.

“Because," she said, "it's really hard for our parents to drive kids to Princeton, LaSalle, or Ottawa, [or] wherever they need to go for these sessions."

Mendota partnered with their local regional office of education to train in mental health first aid and how to identify students who need support. They expanded health curricula and brought in mental health professionals to present to the whole school.

But ESSER is one-time funding that will expire. It makes hiring staff more complicated when you don’t know how you’ll be able to continue paying them -- especially at rural schools that have a hard time staffing these positions even when they have the money. But Aughenbaugh says the five-year grant allows them to continue those mental health services they’ve started through ESSER.

“That's such a benefit," said Aughenbaugh, "especially to our rural schools, where we have such a struggle, having access to these mental health supports,”

The DeKalb Public School District is not part of that federal grant program. But ESSER funding has allowed them to significantly increase the number of mental health professionals on staff.

Before COVID, the district had 35 mental health professionals, including counselors, social workers and psychologists. Since 2020, they’ve added nine more, seven of which are funded through ESSER.

DeKalb director of student services Kyle Gerdes says it was a massive opportunity.

“I think we really wanted to bolster our early intervention, I'll say early childhood up through that fifth grade, that elementary age,” said Gerdes. “What we tried to do was ensure we always have staff available to respond to students who wave what we would consider more crisis needs. But that doesn't pull away from our ability to provide preventative support in classrooms and social emotional learning lessons that all students get.”

He says the district is in a financial position to keep those positions, even after ESSER expires.

Not every school can keep up the mental health support they put in place during the pandemic. There are other efforts -- like allowing students five mental health days off. But,Gerdes says, you can have all of the programs you want, but it won’t matter much if you don’t have trained people in those roles to help kids.

And, he says, they have to, because the mental health struggles so many of their kids experience aren’t going away anytime soon.

Peter joins WNIJ as a graduate of North Central College. He is a native of Sandwich, Illinois.