Help When It Matters Most: The School-Based Mental Health Program (Part 1 of 3)

Disruptive behavior and poor academic performance are just two possible symptoms of mental health challenges in children. In this 3-part blog, Marisa Parrella, Manager of Mary’s Center’s School-Based Mental Health (SBMH) Program (pictured standing 5th from left with her team), describes how her therapists partner with 12 schools in Washington, DC to help children overcome trauma, anxiety, and depression, as well as feel good emotionally and do well academically.

What Motivated You To Get Into The Mental Health Profession?

Like many of us who are drawn to service-based professions, personal experiences drew me to Social Work.  Growing up, I had a strong sense of wanting equality and justice for all, as well as a deep sense of empathy for others. Perhaps this feeling came from having immigrant parents who felt what it was like to be caught in between two worlds or maybe it was a religious upbringing that emphasized doing things for others. It could be that I just happened to be the one other people confided in – and I liked that! I had several family members who were physicians and social workers, and they were real role models of social justice for me.  If you ask the other members of our team or other helping professionals, they’ll likely say they had some experience or quality that led them to be called to the profession. I think if you are going to do this kind of work, you have to be called to it.

When I first trained as a social worker, I did a post-graduate fellowship at the Yale Child Study Center (YCSC) and focused solely on school-based mental health. I loved providing therapy in the schools because the stigma often associated with coming to a clinic and asking for help with your mental health disappeared. When you are in a school, in the child’s world, the kids come looking for YOU. They want support from people they can really talk to who not only address academic issues, but also the emotional piece of their experience.  Done right, you literally “meet the students where they are at” – in their school – and you make seeking support a typical part of the school experience. We focus on maintaining wellness, not fixing a “problem”.

Why Is It Important For Children To Have Counselors In The School Setting?

Access. Access. Access.  School social workers are overwhelmed by managing children who have learning disabilities and IEPs (Individualized Educational Plans).  While they often make many referrals to wonderful community agencies that CAN provide additional mental health support needed, families don’t always access it.

What we know is that many vulnerable families are overwhelmed by the number of appointments they need to attend for their children.  They live in single family homes, work several jobs, support aging parents, send money to their home countries – so they don’t’ always follow up a full episode of care (anywhere from 8-12 weekly sessions with a mental health professional).  I have 3 children, myself, and I can barely keep up with all the appointments.  Imagine the huge burden faced by a vulnerable parent who works several jobs with no vacation pay.

The Mary’s Center SBMH Program began with schools contacting us to ask, if they made room for us, would we send a therapist to them to help treat the multiple, vulnerable students unable to get care in our clinic.  The program was born.

 SBMH mental health therapists offer a full diagnostic assessment, treatment planning with the child and family, and short or long-term courses of treatment on-site in schools. We rate functioning at the beginning and end of treatment to ensure we achieve positive results for the child. We provide courses of treatment that impact the child holistically by considering the academic, emotional, psychological, familial, and environmental impacts of their concern. The children have access to our psychiatrists, if necessary, and we link them to medical services, collaborating with primary care physicians at Mary’s Center.  Using our comprehensive Social Change Model, we refer children to the social service support programs we have at Mary’s Center.  Through grants, we provide additional social service supports on-site in schools with Community Support Workers.

Often, parents don’t know how to access mental health services, especially when they are coming from other countries where seeing a counselor is very stigmatized. Other times, they just aren’t familiar with what therapy is and how it can impact lives. With our School-Based Mental Health program, they see us as a part of the school and they trust us, understanding a little bit more about what we can do.  Once they trust us, they access us.

Read Part 2 of this blog in which we learn about the challenges students face, what can happen if they don’t get help and how Mary’s Center’s SBMH team works with parents and schools to achieve positive outcomes for students.

About Marisa Parrella, LICSW, LCSW-C

Marisa joined Mary's Center in February 2014. She is a Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker (D.C.) and a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (Maryland). Marisa holds a Master's degree in Social Work from the University of Michigan and completed a Post Graduate Fellowship in Clinical Social Work at the Yale University Child Study Center. She speaks English and Spanish and enjoys running, hiking, cooking, reading and travel.

Learn more about Marisa and the Mary’s Center therapists.


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