Last week, the 94th school-based health center funded by the Department of Public Health, and the 15th in New London County, opened in Mary Morrison Elementary School in Groton.
“When the folks from Family & Child Agency approached us about the possibility of having another center we were thrilled to put it mildly,” said Michael Graner, superintendent of schools in Groton.
This is not Groton’s first school-based health center. There is one at the high school, one at each middle school, and at Title 1 elementary schools serving disadvantaged students. All are operated by Family & Child Agency and funded by the Department of Public Health. However, this is the first health center to open at an elementary school serving mainly children of U.S. Navy personnel.
“What we have with the military community is a lot of mobility. Kids are not able to get physicals in a timely manner, so this was a real blessing for us,” Graner said.
The center staff includes an advanced nurse practitioner, a licensed clinical social worker and therapist. Students are able to get physicals, vaccines, regular therapy appointments and diagnoses for acute physical or mental health concerns.
“The health center is our primary resource for mental health services. When children are in crisis the center really provides for that need,” Graner said. “Beyond that, I can tell you that children throughout the whole school, regardless of socioeconomic status use the nurse practitioner for diagnosis and treatment of all types of childhood ailments.”
Benefits of a school-based health center
Across the state, school-based health centers are helping address reduce absenteeism and address some of the underlying reasons students may be underperforming in school by giving them easier access to mental and physical healthcare. Each center tracks student outcomes and reports them to the state, and the results – according to Melanie Bonjour, who manages six centers in Danbury and Newtown through the Institute for Communities Inc. – are promising.
“Patients report feeling better, parents report that children are performing better. We are decreasing STD rates and BMIs of our students,” Bonjour said.
Last school year, 23,163 students visited a school-based health center, 4,589 visited for mental health reasons. The purpose of the centers is to provide the next level of care beyond a school nurse or in-house school psychologist, according to the Department of Public Health.
“With a center to provide the next level of care the school psychologist identifies a student that is not doing well and speaks to the parents. It then falls on the parents to find a clinician in the community and get their child there,” Bonjour said. “With a center, parents don’t need to leave work and a child doesn’t miss as much class time.”
School-based health centers do bill private insurance companies and HUSKY health if it is an option, but any child, even those without insurance, are able to receive services at the center at no cost.
“I know that there is a need and desire for more funding and more centers,” Bonjour said. “Determining when and where to open centers is typically based on a community needs assessment. Within the school system itself or in the community there could be more kids that are reporting to the social work staff with mental health concerns or truancy.”
Opening more centers, however, would require an earmark for more funding, which is unlikely during the upcoming, abbreviated election-year session. At first, the health centers were all located in high schools. The emphasis, Bonjour explained, was to provide reproductive health care and education. Today, the Department of Public health is introducing the centers into elementary schools.
“We are seeing more sites at elementary schools, because we can address the problems and work toward prevention,” Bonjour said.
A focus on mental health
In recent years, mental health has become a focus of school-based health centers across the state, according to the Department of Public Health.
“School-based health centers provide mental health screening to all students that come in for a medical visit and if found at risk do an additional suicide screening,” said Av Harris, director of communications and government relations for the Department of Public Health. “If a student is at risk of suicide the families are contacted, a health plan is created and implemented.”
At group counseling sessions and presentations, Harris explained, social workers discuss the topic of suicide with students and parents.
“School-based health center staff coordinate with other school staff and community providers, to provide outreach to students, parents, and staff through posters, pamphlets, bracelets, pens and other materials,” Harris said.
One of those community providers in eastern Connecticut is SERAC: Supporting and Engaging Resources for Action and Change. SERAC recently received a three-year grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to increase mental health training and awareness programming across eastern Connecticut. The $116,810 grant addresses the gap in services and access to existing services for mental health care.
“We are promoting awareness around mental health and encouraging people to be gatekeepers of resources in their community,” said Angela Rae Duhaime, the associate director of SERAC. “We teach how to notice warning signs, risk factors and where to get help. We want people to feel empowered to talk about mental health and change the norm. It’s all about breaking down the stigma.”
This past year in Lyme, Old Lyme, Waterford, Montville and Ledyard, Duhaime said they began pairing mental health training with Narcan training, funded by a separate state grant.
“We received information back from advocates in the police department and volunteers that the training was incredibly useful,” Duhaime said.
So useful, according to Duhaime, that it has helped save 15 lives.
Bonjour and Duhaime expressed hope that funding from the state will increase as those positive outcomes become more clear to the legislature.
“School-based health centers have very strong, bipartisan legislative support,” Bonjour said. “The importance is that we provide timely access to quality healthcare so that we can support their health, wellness and academic achievement.”
Note that this story has been corrected to reflect that the 3-year grant to SERAC was for $116,810 not $50,000.