SALEM, OR (KPTV) - When it comes to mental health issues, school counselors are the ones on the front lines.
“All counselors are trained in mental health and we’re the go-to in the building,” Melissa Miller said. “So, if we have any mental health crisis, they come to us first.”
Miller has been a school counselor for five years, working at McNary High School in the Salem-Keizer Public Schools.
In that short time, she’s seen how topics like anxiety, depression and suicide have switched from a conversation to an actual crisis.
“It does seem like there has been an increase in just the mental health part of things,” she said.
It was about three years ago when Miller said McNary High School experienced devastating losses, after two students took their lives in a couple weeks of each other.
“Then a little over a year later, we lost one of our seniors and he was one of mine and we were pretty close, so that was my first experience of going through something where it really hit so close,” she said.
Salem-Keizer Public Schools is also just coming off a tough year. A spokesperson told FOX 12 it was last school year when six kids in the district died of suicide.
Miller said the district is doing whatever it can to prevent lives lost and that means when it comes to mental health issues, her job is always changing.
“It’s very thorough now,” she said. “It’s thorough and as a counselor, you figure out how to make that thorough feel genuine to the kid.”
She said when they learn of someone who might need help, it usually starts with an immediate conversation, followed by a suicide risk assessment questionnaire.
“Once we kind of find out what level is this crisis, then we know where to refer them to, what resources they might need, if we need to pull parents in, if it’s founded or unfounded and it just drives that direction we need to go to make sure they get the support that they need,” Miller said.
That could mean bringing in an outside mental health treatment provider. Or if it’s an immediate need, contacting the local health department so someone from the Youth and Family Crisis Center can come in and do an evaluation.
“I always go back to that saying it takes a village,” Miller said. “You find that it really is systemic right now.”
And the district is adding to that village. Starting this school year, an extra counselor has been added to the high schools. That means Miller and others can spend more time focusing on fewer students.
The district has also hosted listening sessions at schools about teen suicide prevention and the importance of making it an ongoing conversation.
Finally, the district has hired a suicide prevention coordinator who plans staff training, curriculum upgrades and facilitates partnerships with community organizations to connect students and their families with resources.
“So, it’s really about getting the information out to them and saying here’s some signs to look for if you’re thinking something’s going on with a kid that you need help with and here’s who you can go to if you don’t know what to do,” Miller said. “I mean clear down from teacher, admin to your clerical staff, your security, your janitors, everyone is involved in some way, in making sure kids are safe and taken care of.”
Miller said one of the biggest things they try and do is make sure kids have a connection with an adult in the school and hopefully peers.
While Miller works to form meaningful relationships with all her students, she said counselors often learn of an issue from another kid or staff member reporting it to them.
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