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Jen McNally ’06C and Cole Stark ’09C

Doane graduates McNally ’06C & Stark ’09C lead groundbreaking mental health program

Two Doane graduates are spearheading a mental health program in the southeast region of Nebraska, serving students, teachers, and staff in seven school districts. Their work has had extremely positive results, in some instances saved lives, and is being adopted by other school districts in the state.

For a number of years, Educational Service Unit (ESU) 5 administrator Dr. Brenda McNiff had discussed the need for mental health services in Nebraska school districts. ESU 5 school districts were supportive of piloting a mental health program, and in turn, ESU 5 hired Doane Master of Arts in Counseling graduate Jen McNally ’06C.

The mental health program, developed by McNally, a licensed independent mental health practitioner, provides counseling services to students and support, training, and consultation to staff in the ESU 5 district of Nebraska.

At the start of the 2017-18 school year, five school districts in Gage, Jefferson, and Thayer counties brought McNally into their schools and implemented the program, which was the first piloted program to have a mental health component across multiple Nebraska school districts. McNally would travel to a different school district every day and it was something the schools and community truly embraced.

“Even though it was a lot of travel, it didn’t feel like work,” McNally said. “Destigmatizing mental health and building a culture of wellness in the school districts has been really powerful.”

After the positive results from the inaugural year, the school districts involved requested more mental health support and two additional school districts in ESU 5 requested to be a part of the program. Because of this, ESU 5 was able to hire Cole Stark ’09C, another Doane Master of Arts in Counseling graduate, to provide counseling services at Southern, Diller-Odell, and Bruning Davenport school districts. McNally is at Thayer Central two days a week and Tri County two days a week, and a third professional, school psychologist Jamie Mapp, was brought on board to work in the Freeman and Beatrice school districts.

Cole and Jen outside capitol mag.jpgMcNally ’06C and Stark ’09 outside the state capitol building. The work these Doane graduates are doing has caught the attention of other Educational Service Units across the state.

“The overarching theme is that schools are recognizing that their students need mental health resources,” Stark said. “If it’s available, youth are far more likely to reach out and access the services. In the past, when working with adolescents, I’ve found that meeting them in my outpatient office, out of their environment, was less effective and could be a burden if a parent had to leave work to take their child to therapy. In this program, ESU brings the services to them and students have little disruption to their day.”

Statistics show that there is a glowing need for mental health services, particularly in adolescents, yet a number of individuals never receive help. According to data from the National Institute of Mental Health Disorders, an estimated 26% of Americans ages 18 and older suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year. Over 60% of youth with major depression do not receive any mental health treatment and only 25% of youth with severe depression receive consistent treatment (7-25+ visits in a year), according to Mental Health America.

Mental health goes beyond depression, McNally notes. She also says that the perception of what someone looks like who struggles with mental health, more often than not, is not always accurate.

“We have a lot of high ability learners that have a lot of stress,” she says. “4.0 GPA students, multiple sport athletes.. it’s not always who you would imagine would be struggling with mental health. It’s empowering for kids to be able to stop and ask if this is OK. Students are eight times more likely to access mental health services if they are offered in the school.”

To date in the 2018-19 academic year, McNally, Stark, and Mapp have served over 100 students with a variety of mental health needs. The three most common cases involve students who have struggles with relationships (peers, family), have experienced a traumatic event, and/or have had suicidal ideations.

In order to seek guidance from one of the mental health therapists, a mental health referral form is available at the schools involved. As McNally puts it, “whether you’re a custodian, bus driver, paraprofessional, teacher, or superintendent, you can fill it out.”

McNally said they have visited with a number of kids who have been actively suicidal but have been able to turn things around.

I think the greatest reward, the thing that keeps me inspired is watching the students find themselves outside of all the noise, go through things like trauma, are desperately hurting, but they heal and are able to talk about it, able to take the shame out of it. It’s so inspiring to see that happen. Healthy kids are healthy learners.” Jen McNally ’06C

Drew Harris, Superintendent at Thayer Central Public Schools, has seen tremendous value in the ESU 5 mental health services.

“Having a LIMHP in our buildings has been a very positive thing for Thayer Central,” Harris said. “It has had a great impact on the absenteeism we were experiencing in our most problematic students and it has also allowed us to provide our staff and even our students with valuable training opportunities on stress and coping. As a superintendent, I never wanted my school to be responsible for providing these services, but when 1 in 5 kids are identified as having a mental health issue, most of which are receiving no services or assistance whatsoever, how can we turn our backs to this very real need?”

Research shows that students who receive social-emotional and mental health support achieve better academically. Additionally, school climate, classroom behavior, on-task learning, and students’ well-being all improve as well.

The work McNally, Stark, and Mapp are doing has caught the attention of other ESUs as well. ESU 9, covering the Hastings-area of Adams, Clay, Hamilton, Webster, and Nuckolls counties, has one full-time counselor working this academic year and have plans to bring on an additional professional for the 2019-20 academic year. ESU 1 and ESU 4 have hired therapists as well. For context, there are 19 Educational Service Units in Nebraska.

Prior to this program, the access of mental health professionals in schools was extremely limited." Cole Stark ’09C

“By in large, kids didn’t have access to mental health professionals," Stark said. "A lot of school counselors have been through training to operate in that role, but most of the time the counselors don’t focus on mental health treatment. A great deal of their time is concentrated on schedules, college applications, recommendation letters, school activities, and other day-to day responsibilities. This program allows us to support the school counselors by providing more in-depth and consistent mental health services to the students.”

As the program continues to draw interest, it appears that expansion to other ESUs is inevitable in the coming years. Even better, the pipeline of Doane students getting involved continues to grow. A current student in the Master of Arts in Counseling program, Kelsey Haugen, is an intern with McNally and Stark.

“I think you’re going to see programs like what ESU 5 is doing become more prominent,” Stark said. “I know several ESUs have reached out to Jen to inquire about it. There is legislation out there being proposed that would put mental health professionals in the school systems and I could see it being mandated soon.”

For more information on the ESU5 Mental Health Services Program, visit here.