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Counselors push for mental health screener

Fairfield School District counselors Jay Thompson and Taryn Mottet address the Fairfield Community School District Board of Directors about the need for mental health screeners during the board's December meeting.
Fairfield School District counselors Jay Thompson and Taryn Mottet address the Fairfield Community School District Board of Directors about the need for mental health screeners during the board's December meeting.

School counselors met with the Fairfield School District Board of Directors in December to tell them about the growing desire for mental health specialists in the district.

Taryn Mottet, guidance counselor at Pence Elementary School, and Jay Thompson, Fairfield K-8 Success and Middle School Counselor, addressed the board about mental health.

The two said that district staff have been asking for mental health counselors because they’re noticing more mental health needs.

Mottet and Thompson explained that school counselors receive training that allows them to identify potential mental health concerns, but are not trained or allowed ethically and professionally to provide mental health treatment.

“We can do skill building and short-term interventions to see if that addresses concerns, but, if not, a referral to a mental health provider is the next step,” they told The Ledger in a joint statement.

The two said growing mental health problems is a national trend. Counselors continue to see anxiety, depression, anger and other mental health concerns that require additional therapeutic support.

“We care deeply for our students, and want them to receive the best mental health care possible,” They said. “This allows them to continue to grow not just academically, but also personally and socially.”

Mottet and Thompson said the lack of a mental health professional in the district forces students to go elsewhere for their appointments, causing them to miss half or even whole days of school.

“Currently, students have a few local options for mental health treatment,” they said. “If those agencies are full or limited in therapist availability, then students and parents must choose between waiting several weeks or months for treatment, or traveling to another mental health agency in another town. Therefore, parents often have to take students out of school and drive them to places such as Ottumwa, Oskaloosa, Iowa City, etc.”

They said some parents have a preference for a specific treatment provider, and take their student out of class to make an appointment with that particular provider.

“Students often miss academic instruction for either part or all day, depending upon appointments,” the two continued. “While the district certainly understands the need for these appointments and supports students receiving the care they need, it is difficult to make up for missed instruction time which can cause gaps in learning.”

Mental health screener

Mottet and Thompson said they’d like to introduce a mental health screener to the district.

“Currently, students are identified for referral to mental health services based on observed concerns by teachers and staff, by parent referral, and by students self-reporting their concerns,” they said. “We understand the research that suggests we are not identifying all of the mental health needs of all students. By screening all students, we are more likely to identify students that may be quietly dealing with untreated mental health concerns.”

The screener would be a tool to help us identify these students for a follow-up conversation to see if they need help.

During the school board meeting, board member Paul Miller asked Mottet and Thompson how a mental health screener would catch something a teacher would not. Mottet and Thompson said a mental health screener is trained to spot students who suffer from mental health problems quietly and privately.

“We have an ethical and professional duty to try to support these students as well,” they said.