By Jennifer Brofer
SUN VALLEY, Calif. – In recognition of growing mental health concerns among children, a team of therapists with the Department of Mental Health at North Valley Military Institute (NVMI) College Preparatory Academy provides a variety of mental health services to its 800 students.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “One in five children, either currently or at some point during their life, have had a seriously debilitating mental illness.”
NVMI’s Director of Mental Health, Vanessa De Avila, a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist who is also certified in Pupil Personnel Services, said the school’s team of therapists helps students cope with a variety of stressors that may inhibit their education and growth.
“Over the past few years, more and more NVMI students and community members have reported having a difficult time with their mental health, and they are experiencing problematic behaviors, and distress related to Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) from the past,” said De Avila, who has served the NVMI community since 2014. “Our services address these needs by meeting NVMI community members where they are, helping them to manage their distress, and talking through difficult life experiences. This approach helps to make sure that problems from the past do not lead to negative consequences in the future, or contribute to ongoing distress and unhelpful behavior patterns.”
Experts say school-based mental health services have been shown to improve access to care and allow for early identification and treatment of mental health issues.
“Schools are an optimal setting to identify, manage, and sustain progress for children with mental health problems,” according to Sharon Hoover, Ph.D., and Jeff Bostic, M.D., Ed.D., in a 2021 article published by the American Psychiatric Association. “An ever-growing body of evidence indicates that integrating mental health supports and services directly within the school setting is an effective delivery system for child mental health programming.”
NVMI students may request mental health services via the Mental Health Referral Link, and those who may be placed on the waitlist will be provided with resources for no-cost, external support programs, said De Avila. Students experiencing a crisis situation will receive on-campus services immediately from NVMI’s crisis team, added De Avila.
“Therapy Services are provided through a number of sessions where the therapist helps the student work in depth on an issue,” said De Avila. “This could include helping the student with building their self-esteem, building skills (coping, communication, self-regulation), and improving their overall functioning. We don’t give up when a student or family continues to struggle. Many problems take time to resolve, and sometimes our role is just to help the people we are working with to maintain their sense of hope.”
School-based mental health services also help to reduce absenteeism via therapists working directly with students and families to address issues relating to school attendance.
“Our Child Welfare and Attendance (CWA) therapist is dedicated to assisting students and their families in getting students on campus, and addressing any issues that prevent students from consistent, daily attendance,” said De Avila. “The CWA meets with students and their families to help overcome any obstacles that impair attendance. This can include providing resources for housing, food and transportation.”
NVMI’s Superintendent, Dr. Mark Ryan, has witnessed first-hand the effect these mental health services can have on a child’s education and success later in life.
“One of our recent graduates participated in mental health counseling for all of their multi-year tenure at NVMI, and that student is now being very successful at [California State University, Northridge],” said Dr. Ryan. “I ran into him on the CSUN campus last week, and he commented that the counseling support provided by one of our Licensed Clinical Social Workers, Barrett Redelman, was the single biggest reason he believes he graduated from high school, got accepted to college, and is now successfully studying computer science.”
Educationally Related Mental Health Services (ERMHS) are required by law as part of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), and “NVMI goes far beyond those services, offering a full array of mental health services to all students who need them,” said Dr. Ryan.
“It is not very common to have more than one person who provides mental health services on campus,” added De Avila of her team that includes 10 full-time therapists. “Many schools outsource their services to a community agency that sends out a therapist once or twice per week.”
De Avila is proud of the work her team is doing to affect positive change in the lives of NVMI’s students and their families.
“The most rewarding part is to be able to witness and be part of a student’s personal growth,” said De Avila. “As a supervising mental health clinician, it is also rewarding to see the therapists on my team build connections with students, and see how their work is creating a positive impact. Seeing that my team is hard working, caring, empathetic and supportive gives me confidence that we have the right people working with our students.”