Counseling practicum addresses mental health needs in schools

Stephanie Koons
March 17, 2021

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Mental health is a critical component of K-12 students’ academic performance and overall well-being, and the COVID-19 pandemic has heightened the need for services that address those needs. A partnership between the Penn State College of Education and the State College Area School District (SCASD) is creating opportunities for graduate students to gain counseling experience in educational settings while removing some of the stigma and barriers to access surrounding mental health treatment.

With funding from SCASD’s Education Foundation, an internship program was created in 2016 that allows master’s students in the College of Education’s Counselor Education program to counsel students in the district. The partnership was spearheaded by Seria Chatters, who was at that time an assistant professor of counselor education and the coordinator of the Clinical Mental Health in Schools and Communities emphasis. In 2018, she moved into the roles of director of equity and inclusivity for SCASD and adjunct associate professor in the College of Education's Department of Educational Psychology, Counseling, and Special Education (EPCSE). Chatters was assisted by Katie Kostohryz, associate teaching professor in the same department, and Jeanne Knouse, director of Student Services at SCASD. The program is administered through the Dr. Edwin L. Herr Clinic, which is staffed by master's and doctoral students in the Counselor Education program.

“The overall mission of this partnership is to remove barriers and provide equitable access to students, families, faculty and staff seeking mental health supports,” said Kostohryz.

The Education Foundation recently helped to expand SCASD’s partnership with Penn State’s Herr Clinic, by funding a graduate assistantship role that will connect individuals and families to service providers more quickly. That role has been filled by Kostohryz.

“My position is tasked with developing an infrastructure to connect the Penn State Counselor Education program and SCASD through the provision of clinical supervision and administrative support aimed at expanding equitable access to mental health services,” she said.

Kostohryz’s appointment comes on the heels of the loss of a SCASD student due to suicide in January.

“Dr. Kostohryz was instrumental in supporting the district’s response to the needs of students and staff,” said Chatters. “Dr. Kostohryz provided a Straight Talk (as part of a monthly educational series provided by SCASD) on grief and loss for the community and assisted SCASD’s Office of Student Services and Office of Equity and Inclusivity in launching a multi-level response.”

As reported by NPR, providers at hospitals in seven states across the U.S. report that since the COVID-19 pandemic started, more suicidal children are coming to their hospitals. Additionally, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, between April and October 2020, hospital emergency departments saw a rise in the share of total visits that were from youths for mental health needs.

At the time of the SCASD partnership’s inception in 2016, Chatters said, the district had conducted a survey that found students reporting a significant amount of suicidal ideation and depressive symptoms. She said that Knouse wanted to put together a team that would develop assessments for students’ mental health needs and then institute a multi-tiered system of support: classroom interventions, group counseling and individual counseling services.

“This is a clinic that is really interacting on all levels within a school system in the multi-tiered system of support,” Chatters said.

One of the advantages of the internship program, Chatters and Kostohryz said, is the convenience and flexibility that it offers to the students, teachers, staff, parents and families who utilize the counseling services. Prior to the pandemic, the Herr Clinic interns were seeing clients in the clinic as well as making trips to the schools.

“That’s the really innovative part of these services,” Chatters said. “Parents don’t have to pick up their kids after school and drive them to counseling. It removes some of the barriers for services for those families.”

That need for accessibility came to the forefront when COVID-19 caused SCASD to close its schools and switch to remote learning in March 2020.

“We knew those interns needed to graduate,” said Chatters. “We also lost a lot of that immediate access to parents and families that had the most significant needs.”

The Herr Clinic quickly transitioned to a telehealth model in which health-related services and information are distributed via electronic information and telecommunication technologies.

A crucial need at the beginning of the pandemic, Chatters said, was getting in touch with families in need, which they addressed by having interns make “well check” phone calls to inquire whether the families needed services like food or transportation and how students and families were adapting to the remote learning plan. While counselors and clients had previously not been allowed to interact by phone, Chatters worked collaboratively with Kristen Nadermann, assistant teaching professor in the Department of EPCSE and Herr Clinic coordinator, and Christy Beck, assistant teaching professor in EPCSE and Herr Clinic supervisor, to adapt to the shifting landscape and now use the telephone service Google Voice to protect interns’ privacy. They also tailored the online counseling process so that supervisors could join a Zoom meeting if the interns need them for support.

Chatters and Kostohryz emphasized that students do not necessarily need to have a clinical mental disorder to be able to utilize the Herr Clinic’s services. Students could be referred to the program for various reasons, including a lack of a stable home address, chronic depression and racial trauma.

“There’s a variety of ways students can access services,” Kostohryz said.

Because the Herr Clinic is a training clinic with student interns, she added, some individuals may feel more comfortable and less stigmatized for seeking mental health treatment than they would by seeing a licensed practitioner.

While the connection between mental health and education may not be immediately obvious, Chatters said, the Herr Clinic supports the College of Education’s mission in two distinct ways. Currently, its greatest contribution is combating the depression and anxiety in students that has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Definitely, we’re seeing now with the spike in mental health (challenges), we’re going to see a decrease in academic progress for students because they’re correlated,” she said.

Another way in which the Herr Clinic benefits the college, Chatters said, is by presenting research opportunities for exploring assessments to ensure the clinic is “focused on providing empirically supported service modalities.”

While future plans for the SCASD internship program are still up in the air due to the uncertainties surrounding the pandemic, Kostohryz said, she is currently planning for the fall 2021 semester with the expectation that there will be in-person counseling sessions. However, she added, there will likely still be a remote option.

“There’s a real convenience to telehealth,” said Kostohryz. “What are the needs of the students and families and what can we do as a clinic to best support that? I’m training students how to developmentally work with kids and families.”

In fact, Chatters said, mental health clinics offering telehealth services could be considered a silver lining of the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition to lowering stigma and access barriers, incorporating technology into mental health treatment appeals to tech-savvy young adults.

“For teens, getting therapy through their computer and/or cellphone is awesome,” Chatters said. “The in-person component I don’t think is ever going to go away, but I think telehealth is something that is here to stay.”

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Last Updated March 17, 2021