Lee County School District mental health staff help students reintegrate as schools reopen

The entire Lee County Mental Health Services team is training and preparing for students who experienced the impact of Hurricane Ian as their schools reopened this week on a delayed schedule.

“It’s a team made up of school counselors, social workers, school psychologists, licensed mental health professionals and school nurses,” said director of school counseling and mental health services, Lori Brooks, M.Ed., Ed.S.

“This is a highly skilled integrated team at master’s level and above that serves the mental health needs of students. So when something like Hurricane Ian happens, our training doesn’t start at the basic level of mental health,” she said. “It’s more about crisis response and making sure we’re ready to have a healthy return to school for adults and for our students, and that really starts with “How do we welcome them back?”

The school district’s mental health services staff use an evidence-based crisis response model that uses different interventions based on the type of incident. The goals and initiatives of this response are essentially the same in all grade levels, but Brooks said the techniques will vary in elementary, middle and high schools based on students’ developmental level.

She emphasized the importance of schools having integrated mental health teams. “I’ll give you an example: the school nurse may have students come to the clinic in the coming weeks with somatic symptoms. This nurse is trained to look deeper,” Brooks said.

“So when you look at a student coming in with a sick stomach and a headache. Are you really seeing somatic symptoms that could be a stomach virus, or are you seeing, when you really look through it, potential anxiety and engaging in a deeper discussion?”

A mental health response can begin with teacher-led “classroom meetings” to restore a sense of safety and allow students to ask questions.

“It’s a way that when their students come into class, they (teachers) can get a sense of where (students) are emotionally that day, how their day is going, and they can go through that brief meeting in the classroom and then in coursework,” Brooks said.

“It also gives teachers, because they’re our eyes and ears, a chance to really check in on students and notice who might be struggling so we can target them for extra support.”

Brooks says mental health funding directed by the Florida Legislature through the state Department of Education in response to the 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School allows the district’s mental health response to be more robust than it was after previous disasters such as Hurricane Irma in 2017.

She said the phased reopening schedule also allows them to focus more mental health resources on individual schools as they resume classes, “because we can get more mental health professionals in those schools and then they can go back to their own their schools when those schools open’.

Brooks said the school district is also working to support staff affected by Ian’s catastrophic damage. “For our staff, we had a hurricane support event this past week … with FEMA and United Way and many other agencies here at the school board building so that our staff can access resources and try to get back on their feet .”

Other community partners in the Lee School District’s response include SalusCare, Valerie’s House, Catholic Charities and the Kids’ Minds Matter initiative through Lee Health.

Click here for a detailed Lee County school reopening schedule. For a more extended conversation with Lori Brooks about the Lee County School District’s response to Hurricane Ian, tune into Gulf Coast Life on WGCU-FM Tuesday, October 18 at 2:00 or 7:00 p.m.

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