By Renee Webb, Content and Design Coordinator, Lumen Media

Posted with permission from Dawn Prosser, Director of Communications, Diocese of Sioux City

Catholic Charities program serves rural diocesan schools:

With May marking Mental Health Awareness Month, the executive director of Catholic Charities in the Diocese of Sioux City stated mental health is everyone’s business.

“The impact on someone struggling with mental illness is significant on their family, employers and our society,” said Amy Bloch of Catholic Charities.

Citing statistics from the Iowa Department of Public Health, she noted that one in four people report having a mental health issue and that is only the number of people reporting, yet there is only one mental health practitioner to every 100,000 individuals in the state of Iowa.

There is a need for mental health services not only for adults, but for youth. Last year Catholic Charities implemented a new school-based therapist program in diocesan rural schools because no other resources were available to them.

Nathan Phillips, the school-based therapist for Catholic Charities, currently works in six of the diocesan rural Catholic schools. A native of the Diocese of Sioux City, Phillips said although he has been out of the state for a number of years, he views this as a coming home.

With a love of his Catholic family, he recognizes it as a gift to be able to serve the diocese in a field he is so passionate about.

“Sometimes we as school-based therapists represent the only access a child has to consistent mental health treatment,” said Phillips. “We have the opportunity to work within the school so the impact of coming to the therapist is significantly easier for the family in terms of getting the child to a provider.”

According to Lyndi Steger, principal of St. Rose of Lima School in Denison, the school-based therapist visits the school one-half day each month.

“The therapist builds a unique relationship with each student,” she said. “When a student is struggling with a social or emotional issue, the student feels comfortable talking with the trusted therapist to cope or solve problems.”

Phillips said sometimes students may simply need to talk to a neutral person – someone who is not going to judge and will be there despite what is shared.

“In recent years we have seen an increase in mental health issues within our children. There is an abundance of data to demonstrate this,” he said. “One of the most worrying pieces of information comes from nationwide reporting done by hospitals which points to a 330% increase in the last 10 to 15 years of children, adolescents and teenagers showing up at emergency rooms in mental health crisis.”

While this increase may be due to a number of factors, Phillips said a lack of awareness in the general populace of this issue coupled with all the issues children are dealing with are big contributors.

The school therapist went on to say that one of the most common areas of clinical treatment is dealing with interpersonal conflicts within children. These conflicts could be due to symptoms of ADHD, depression or some other unrecognized/undiagnosed factor within a child’s life.

Anxiety, depression, socialization and some divorce situations are among some of the struggles Steger has seen with her students.

“Our children face a host of challenges right now, not the least of which is understanding their world within the social media context,” said Phillips. “This can be a challenging and harsh environment for children progressing through their developmental stages.”

Plus, Steger noted, students have more issues to manage on their own as many of them become the caretaker after school or have anxiety from social media outlets.

To make matters worse, the principal said the pandemic “definitely caused a disconnect between students and the school community. March to August was too long to be away from one another. Some students struggled with too much isolation, which then caused more worries.”

In addition, she said families dealing with mental health or problems due to COVID-19 sometimes trickled down to children.

“The consequences of this pandemic I believe will not be fully realized for years,” said Phillips. “Social disconnectedness, illness and loss of a loved one are all aspects many of our diocesan children could be dealing with along with working through their typical school day.”

The executive director of Catholic Charities agreed that COVID-19 has only intensified mental health needs.

“Mental health numbers are increasing. This could be due to a number of reasons – more people identifying they are struggling, but more individuals are having mental health problems. Suicide rates are also increasing, specifically in rural areas,” said Bloch.

Another service provided by the school-based program is crisis assessment.

“If we are in a school and a child is in danger of some sort, with parent/guardian permission, we can provide an immediate clinical picture of what the client is going through and provide for that child’s immediate safety,” the school-based therapist said.

Besides utilizing the school-based therapist from Catholic Charities, Steger said St. Rose implemented a new social/emotional curriculum this year for K-5 that provides strategies to help students deal with stress and frustration.

As Catholic Charities and schools work to put measures in place to help with mental health concerns, Bloch offered this suggestion to parents: “Don’t wait until it’s a serious problem or a crisis. If you are starting to see indicators of concern, get help or contact a professional to consult.”