Staying for their students: School mental health workers share the impact of their work

Published: Sep. 21, 2023 at 6:45 PM EDT
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MICHIGAN CENTER, Mich. (WILX) - Kids across the state of Michigan are battling a mental health crisis, and educators say the proof is in their classrooms.

Between the disruption to their social lives during the COVID-19 pandemic and the ever-growing pressures of social media, kids and teens have suffered mentally and emotionally over the last several years. According to data from the 2023 Michigan Kids Count, 13.5% of children experience depression or anxiety.

“They’re really struggling in the classroom, as far as regulating their emotions,” said Social Emotional Support Coordinator Carrianne Vandusseldorp.

Managing the well-being of an entire student body is no easy task. But Michigan Center School District in Jackson County is trying to address those student mental health needs by hiring support staff, like Vandusseldorp, and others who specialize in helping students understand their emotions.

When emotional stress keeps Michigan Center students from learning, they see Behavior Support Specialist Meeka Sova.

“As soon as the mistake happens, then they come and we go over what they did, what they were feeling, why they did it, how can they make it better, and how can we get back to learning and being successful,” she said.

Sova said it’s more difficult for kids to learn when they’re feeling intense emotions, whether it’s because of an incident at home, or with a peer at school. If she can help them de-escalate, there’s a better chance that their feelings of anger or sadness won’t follow them through the day.

“Otherwise it could snowball, and we could end up with something rougher on our hands,” she said.

A recent addition to the halls of Keicher Elementary School, part of the Michigan Center district, is the Zen Den. The room was built with a calming environment in mind. Low lights, soft music and comfortable seating fill the space, along with some toys for students with sensory needs. If students are lucky, they might also find Clark the therapy dog — one of three four-legged friends at Keicher.

“I mean you can have a student come in who’s very dysregulated, or very emotional, and he just calms them right down,” Vandusseldorp said.

Aside from being Clark’s handler, Vandusseldorp spends her days teaching tools for Social Emotional Learning. Though some form of SEL has always been around, she said school communities have put a greater focus on its lessons of self-management, empathy and social skills following the pandemic. Vandusseldorp’s position was only added just over a year ago.

“So, it really focuses on self-management, decision making, social awareness, self-awareness,” she said. “I mean it really just brings everything together on how to go out and be a productive citizen in the world.”

No matter how necessary, both Vandusseldorp and Sova said their jobs come with their own stresses, causing many people to abandon the field. Even Sova made the difficult decision to leave at one point in her career.

“I left, and then I came back,” she said. “I can see where people leave, because I was like, ‘yeah, I’m done,’ but then again, if you really have the love for the kids, and you want to help the kids, you want to be around them.”

When it comes to children’s mental health, Vandusseldorp said it’s staff like herself, Sova, and the other Michigan Center team members who return day after day to make a difference in the long run.

“In a lot of positions, you see results immediately, and this is something that, it’s going to take some time to really see the effect of it,” Vandusseldorp said.

The affect, she said, of giving students constant support to make it through the day, knowing that no matter what, they are not alone.

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