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New agreements help mental health treatment in Bellingham schools

Sea Mar Community Health counselors Natasha Salemme and Chris Heckert, shown on Sept. 23, 2015, are keeping office hours in three Bellingham public schools, including Roosevelt Elementary. Bellingham schools have added mental health counseling to help students and families.
Sea Mar Community Health counselors Natasha Salemme and Chris Heckert, shown on Sept. 23, 2015, are keeping office hours in three Bellingham public schools, including Roosevelt Elementary. Bellingham schools have added mental health counseling to help students and families. The Bellingham Herald

The Bellingham School District has made it a little easier for students and families to access professional mental health treatment.

The district has reached agreements with the Northwest Educational Service District, Compass Health and, most recently, Sea Mar Community Health Center to have them provide clinicians for mental health counseling.

That means if a student needs mental health treatment beyond what school counselors can provide, they can be referred to a licensed mental health counselor and have sessions right there in the school.

The easier access, some say, is not only helping students perform better in class, but it could make a big difference for them later in life.

“So far, we’re hearing that it’s been really helpful and supportive for students and their families,” said Steve Morse, director of teaching and learning for Bellingham School District.

All four high schools in the district — Squalicum, Sehome, Bellingham and Options — now have a licensed mental health counselor in the building two days a week. Shuksan and Kulshan middle schools, along with five elementary schools, also have counselors.

The district reached the agreement with Sea Mar during summer break. It provides each clinician with an office in whichever school they are working, and in turn the clinician will provide counseling for students and families year round, including summer.

The service is intended to be free for students and their families. It is fully covered for those students on state-paid health insurance, which is the majority, according to Morse,. Sea Mar or Compass Health will work with those with private insurance to keep families from having to pay.

Michelle Nilson, a Squalicum High School counselor, said she has seen the benefits of having a clinician from Northwest Educational Service District since last October.

The transition has been seamless, she said. Families seeking treatment don’t have to navigate the wait list when there is a clinician in school. At the high school level, it’s easy to see the improvement in student performance.

“The kids are integrating back in to school and you’re seeing improvement in academic behavior, as well as progress in completing classes,” Nilson said.

It also helps kids who may be thinking of suicide or have anxiety issues, Nilson said.

School counselors often don’t have time for an hour-long session. Now, when a counselor recognizes a mental health condition, kids can be referred over to a professional clinician.

It helps solve the problem of having too few school counselors in general due to a lack of school funding, Morse said. Washington state had an average of 510 students per counselor in the 2010-11 school year, according to U.S. Department of Education data. That number was higher than the national average and the 10th worst rate in the nation.

Morse said there is one clinician from the Northwest Educational Service District, four from Compass Health, and two from Sea Mar working in the schools so far.

Stacy Fennell, child and family program director at Sea Mar, said they already had clinicians in other Whatcom County schools, including Mount Baker, Lynden and Nooksack Valley school districts, before the agreement with Bellingham.

The health center is willing to expand as much as the community needs, she said. So far, Fennell said there have been plenty of positive responses.

“The availability makes a big difference,” Fennell said.

Reach Wilson Criscione at 360-756-2803 or wilson.criscione@bellinghamherald.com.

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