Noblesville school counselors work to remove mental health stigma: ‘We have to find a way to manage it’

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NOBLESVILLE, Ind. - Schools across the state are taking action before it's too late.

Now more than ever, children are tackling adult issues like suicide, threats and anxiety. In a special report, CBS4 found out how Noblesville schools are turning tragedy into triumph.

It's about starting early. Half of mental health disorders start before the age of 14.  Schools are trying to remove the stigma--with school counseling beginning in some cases at only 6 years old.

May 25, 2018, is a day Noblesville West Middle School will never forget--a moment every Hoosier student, parent and teacher hopes will never happen to them. Thirteen-year-old Ella Whistler was shot seven times by a classmate.  Her teacher, Jason Seaman, was hailed a hero for protecting his students.

“The community came together on that day,” said Andrew Smeathers, a counselor at Noblesville High School.

The community is still working to heal from the bullet wounds, scars and tears. The trauma of that day brought the issue of students' mental health into sharp focus.

“Whether it’s a death in the family or parents are separating, there’s a lot of things students face nowadays, even with social media,” said Laura Denis, the director of student services at Noblesville.

School counselors like Smeathers have their hands full. Their role of counselor is evolving.

“We have to find a way to manage it,” said Smeathers, “I work with students who have experienced death and loss.”

In the limited hours of a school day, he could go from speaking to kids about college opportunities to finding a child in his office who's thinking about suicide.

“For me to do the job the best that I can, I need to know what’s going on in that student’s life outside of school,” said Smeathers.

Right now, there are 3,000 kids enrolled at Noblesville High School.  Smeathers is responsible for 400 of them.  At Noblesville’s seven elementary schools that ratio is even higher, with one counselor per 800 students.

“So, we have one counselor per elementary,” said Denis.

It’s something the district is trying to fix.  Seth Kleiman is a child and adolescent psychotherapist.  He says counselors are put on the front lines every day.

“Statistics show anxiety and depression are at its greatest rate right now and so they really need that additional support,” said Kleiman.

Kleiman says he has a lot of respect for counselors and can’t imagine having to support that many children. The numbers show schools need help.

“There are so many different things going on, so many stressors, anxiety, depression has increased so much I can imagine that would be a hard thing to do for one person," Kleiman said.

Dana Nelson and Laura Denis oversee the counselors at the elementary, middle and high school levels at Noblesville.

“Unfortunately, since our counselors wear several hats, we’re not quite there yet,” said Nelson.

They agree, there’s more of a responsibility now.

“We are really focusing on what we can do to make sure the students are most successful,” Denis said.

But equipping students and counselors with the tools to succeed can be challenging.

“Funding can be very challenging,” said Denis.

That’s why in November, the city of Noblesville passed a $50 million referendum that focuses on safety and mental health. That money will add 10 social workers and two additional school counselors to help ease the burden on the 23 counselors already on staff.  Most importantly, the district is adding a brand-new position: a mental health coordinator.  Kleiman believes that’s a move in the right direction.

“I think every day, particularly with social media and other stressors, it’s harder and harder to figure out their niche and their place,” said Kleiman, “So, the more support that can be offered to them to help them feel heard and identify what they most connect with to feel good about themselves, I think the better.”

And to do that, counselors are making their presence known in the classroom.

“We just have to make sure we’re efficient with our time,” Smeathers said.

They're taking a proactive approach to children’s mental health and education--showing students that they're here to listen.

“We don’t do it for the thank you, we do it to help the kids,” Smeathers said.

Noblesville schools are also creating a program called "Bring Change to Mind." It’s a student-run club whose main purpose is to reduce the stigma of mental health and connect kids to available community resources.  If you would like to learn more about what Noblesville schools are doing to combat mental health in schools, click here to visit their website.

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