When students in elementary, middle and high school are dealing with a mental health issue, where do they go for help?
They can turn to school psychologists, counselors and social workers, and if students’ parents have insurance then more support is available. Often, however, the needs in school districts overwhelm existing resources and can’t meet the significant, specific and growing demand, according to University of Wisconsin-Stout Professor John Klem.
Klem is director of UW-Stout’s master’s program in clinical mental health counseling.
UW-Stout has stepped up to fill some of the mental health counseling needs in west-central Wisconsin schools. Nine second-year graduate students have been counseling about 100 students this spring at three area school districts, Menomonie, Bloomer and Ellsworth.
The effort is ongoing despite K-12 school closings because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Since March, in-person counseling at the schools has been replaced with virtual counseling of students in as many situations as possible.
“Schools are really struggling with students’ mental health issues – depression, anxiety, posttraumatic stress disorder, bipolar, schizophrenia. Kids are really struggling,” Klem said, citing issues at home often are the culprit.
“There’s no personnel in the schools trained specifically to deal with the severity of the issues they’re seeing. We’re providing free resources that they couldn’t get another way. There’s such a huge mental health need,” Klem said.
The districts have worked closely with Klem to support the graduate students and acquaint them with the ins and outs of public schools. When local schools identify a student who needs help and has no other counseling options, officials go through a permission process with the parents and UW-Stout.
Klem and the graduate students meet regularly to discuss the clients and any specific issues that arise. The graduate students are not yet licensed professional counselors, like Klem.
‘It can make a world of difference’
Graduate students Marissa Gramoll and Gunther Carpenter feel they are making a difference in children’s lives.
“It’s important to just be someone they can trust and turn to and talk to. It can make a world of difference,” Gramoll said. “When they start opening up, it melts my heart but it breaks it too.”
Many of the students who need help either aren’t coming to school or skip classes when they do come. Working through the problem so that the students get back on track is one of the goals of the UW-Stout counselors.
“Sometimes people aren’t aware of their behaviors. We let them determine their identity and how to build awareness of who they are,” said Gramoll, a native of Fredonia and 2016 UW-Eau Claire psychology graduate.
“I try to provide whatever services I can,” said Gramoll, who also works for Northwest Connections suicide hotline and the Dunn County mobile crisis response unit.
Gramoll, in her final semester of the program, has 12 student clients at Menomonie High School and Downsville elementary. Carpenter, in the first semester of his second year, has five clients at Downsville and Menomonie Middle School.
The counseling techniques Gramoll and Carpenter have learned at UW-Stout, such as play therapy with young children, have equipped them to deal with a variety of clients and problems.
“You have kids with troubling backgrounds or home life. You have to meet them where they’re at,” Carpenter said. “You focus in that first couple of sessions on building that relationship with them. It may be hard for them to trust adults again.
“How can you give them the skills to deal with their situation?” Carpenter said, noting that young people often turn to substance abuse to help cope.
“It’s good for them to have that positive adult role model in their life and give them the time. I let them know they are the focus,” said Carpenter, who works full time as an admissions counselor at UW-Eau Claire. He is a native of Appleton and a 2017 UW-Eau Claire psychology graduate.
A big hurdle often is getting parents to provide consent for counseling, Carpenter said.
A university service, ‘lived’ experience for graduate students
Klem said a casual conversation with Joe Zydowsky, superintendent of the Menomonie school district, in 2018 led to the project.
“Basically, we’ve created a free private practice,” Klem said, including supporting materials and documentation by the school districts.
“It’s a tremendous lived experience in working with kids,” Klem said. “It’s a big leap, asking our graduate students to be very mature, very quickly. There’s a certain degree of saying, ‘You’re a professional counselor now.’ ”
Zydowsky is pleased with the program. "We are fortunate in Menomonie to have so many productive partnerships with UW-Stout. This innovative program for providing school-based mental health services to children in our community is another good example of how the school district and UW-Stout work so well together."
As a polytechnic university, UW-Stout emphasizes experiential learning.
Carpenter and Gramoll praised Klem as a faculty supervisor and for his commitment to and oversight of the program in the schools.
It is modeled after one that Klem helped alumna Courtney Hinnenkamp create when she was hired as a mental health therapist by the Chetek-Weyerhaeuser school district.
“I love the skills and training I’m getting from this program,” said Carpenter, who would like to work in the field of sports psychology. “This experience has confirmed my passion for this field.”
Like Carpenter, Gramoll has found her passion in the mental health counseling field.
“I have something in me that loves working with students. A lot of them have opened up about what’s going on at home. There’s a lot of negative interactions taking place,” said Gramoll, who hopes to work in a high school after she graduates this spring.
“I’m thankful for the school-based program. I’m now more outgoing and comfortable with the services I can provide. It’s been very beneficial for me and my growth as a professional. The professors have been so supportive,” she said.
Klem and his wife, Tonya, a school psychologist in Ellsworth and UW-Stout adjunct instructor, also hold trauma sensitivity workshops for staff at area schools.
“There’s a huge need in the community for more trauma training,” Klem said.
Professor John Klem is director of the master’s program in clinical mental health counseling at UW-Stout.