“Much of what I do is negotiate personal and emotional obstacles that are getting in the way of students’ learning,” said Basil Steele, the social worker on staff at Mount Desert Island High School. ISLANDER FILE PHOTO

School counseling is not for the faint of heart

MOUNT DESERT ISLAND — While many kids are doing just fine, there is a lot of angst in schools these days.

Perhaps more than ever before, students at nearly every age are experiencing anxiety and depression. They’re acting out and being disruptive, and that makes teaching and learning difficult for everyone.

“We get kids who are crying, depressed, suicidal, homicidal, pregnant, hooked on drugs or somebody’s beating them; we get it all,” said Michele Gurtler, director of guidance at Mount Desert Island High School. “And there are a lot more kids coming into the system now, in kindergarten and first grade, with behavioral issues or mental health issues who are not in special education.”

Except for the outer island schools, every school in the Mount Desert Island Regional School system has a counselor on staff. Often, they are still called “guidance” counselors because of their focus on academic support and, at the high school level, on helping students plan for college and careers. But they are being called on more and more to deal with students’ emotional and behavioral problems.

That is where their role overlaps with that of social workers. There are now two full-time social workers in the school system. One of them, Edie Dubois, spends four days a week at Conners Emerson School in Bar Harbor and the fifth day on other work in the district. Basil Steele is the high school social worker.

“Much of what I do is negotiate personal and emotional obstacles that are getting in the way of students’ learning,” Steele said.

“You see a lot of anxiety, especially in high school, which is when education really gets serious. It’s either anxiety around really wanting to succeed and maintain a level of academic achievement or because of what’s going on at home or not being able to engage as effectively as they would like to.”

When appropriate, Steele said, he consults with parents about their children’s emotional or personal problems.

“They can have an incredible family and a very family centered home and still have problems at school,” he said. “But often, they are having issues at home. Then, there’s a good chance it’s going to manifest itself here.”

When he feels that a student needs more long-term or in-depth counseling than he can provide, he will refer them to a community-based mental health professional.

Steele sees some students, both special ed and mainstream students, on a regular basis. Others just stop in to see him when they need someone to talk to.

Elementary school counseling

Anne Dalton works four days a week as the counselor at Tremont Consolidated School. Like other elementary school counselors, she spends a lot of time in the classroom.

“I teach K-8 classes each week, things like social/emotional learning and anti-bullying,” she said. “In middle school [grades] we have a state-required suicide awareness and training. We do career studies; we do study skills; we have a drug and alcohol section.

“For the younger grades, we have goal setting, emotional regulation and many foundational skills,” she continued. “We’re doing some instruction in how the brain works, how to calm yourself and how to get along with other people.”

Dalton also works with small groups of students on certain issues, as well as with students individually.

“I would say that is at least 50 percent of my schedule,” she said.

There are some students she meets with on a regular basis. Others go to see her “when something happened at home or school that day that they want to talk about,” she said.

The problems that she sees most often are anxiety and difficulty with self regulation, which, she said, means “not letting the emotions drive the behavior.”

“We’re trying to teach them how to manage what they’re experiencing,” Dalton said. “It’s helping them develop skills they can put into practice. It’s learning how to communicate with their peers and their teachers.”

She said she also helps families access mental health and other resources in the community.

“We collaborate with social workers outside the school who are working with some of our families,” she said. “And we have a licensed professional counselor who comes in and meets with students one-and-a-half days a week. Each of the schools [in the district] has ongoing relationships with outside providers.”

Dalton said the nature of her job has not changed much in the eight years she has been at Tremont.

“It seems we have similar situations every year,” she said. “But there’s been a bit more focus on kids who may be coming to us with trauma or anxiety.”

Dalton said the most important job of a school counselor is to make connections and build relationships with students.

“I think we all recognize how important it is for students to feel there is someone in the school who is on their team,” she said.

Problem-solving coach at CES

Conners Emerson this year added the position of “collaborative problem solving coach.” The new coach, former teacher Patty Galeaz, complements the work of Dubois and counselor Carol Rosinski. She works with children who have behavioral problems and with middle school students on bullying prevention.

Bar Harbor School Committee member Lilea Simis said at a recent budget meeting that providing support for teachers in dealing with behavioral problems “prevents burnout of faculty and administration.”

On the recommendation of Superintendent Marc Gousse, the school system board has approved funding in next year’s budget for a new full-time social worker to help meet the needs of students in the district’s schools that don’t already have a social worker on staff.

In some schools, students’ emotional and behavioral problems are threatening to overwhelm teachers and principals, as well as counselors.

“We could have a team of 10 in every school to support the teachers and the kids [in learning] how to cope, how to get along and how to interact,” Gurtler said.

Smartphones and depression

Is dependence on — some would addiction to — smartphones and other electronic devices causing depression and anxiety in students, especially at the high school level?

The findings of some studies in the last few years suggest a connection. ScienceDaily reported in September: “A growing body of research has identified a link between smartphone dependency and symptoms of depression and loneliness.”

Some studies also found that, if someone is already experiencing anxiety or depression, heavy smartphone use can increase their isolation and make those problems worse.

Dubois worked two days a week as the social worker at the high school for several years before becoming mostly full time at Conners Emerson.

“Starting in about 2013, kids would come to see me, and they would bring their electronics with them,” she said. “I would tell them I would like them to put that away while we talked. And they would say, ‘Oh, no, I can do both.’

“That was a big change; it didn’t used to happen.

“Now, what I see at the elementary level is that some students have not developed any other hobbies,” Dubois said. “They don’t know what to do with their free time other than be on their electronics.”

Gurtler said that sometimes, if someone tries to take away a student’s smartphone, “That sends them into meltdown.”

Dubois agreed and said, “They need some coping strategies and they also need something else to do.”

Hungry and cold

Some students have trouble learning because they don’t have enough to eat. When school counselors become aware of that, they do what they can to help.

“We have snacks, and kids come in every day because they don’t have anything at home to bring in,” Gurtler said.

In addition to being hungry, some students don’t have warm winter clothes.

“It’s harder at the high school level because the kids are prideful; they won’t wear a coat somebody gives them, even if it’s top of the line,” Gurtler said.

“I tell people that if they want to make donations, donate Walmart gift cards. We give kids those so they can go and get what they want.

“It would be nice to have a couple of group homes where kids can have a room and structure and a meal every day and know how to do laundry and [learn] life skills, because a lot of our kids don’t have that,” Gurtler said. “There’s a lot of family dysfunction.”

Dubois said her work with the families of children at Conners Emerson and other schools in the district sometimes includes helping them sign up for MaineCare, the state’s Medicaid program.

“I also attempt to help with housing or whatever the needs are,” she said. “If a family is out of heat or groceries, just the basic needs … things that most people don’t even think about.”

Toward college and career

Some days it might not seem like it, but the principal job of the high school’s three counselors is helping students with their class choices, finding support for those who are falling behind and helping them plan for careers or college. That includes guiding — and sometimes prodding — them through the college application process.

“If you want to go to college, great,” Gurtler said. “We’d love to support you. But not everybody has to go to college.”

Regardless of what path students choose after high school, she has the same baseline hope for them: “I want you to move out of your mother’s basement and have a job and be happy and pay your own bills. If you want to be an electrician or carpenter or plumber or mason or welder, those are huge fields right now.”

As for those who are bound for college, Gurtler said, “Some parents will say they want their kid to go to a good college. Well, the good college is the one that’s the best fit for your child. You have to go where you’re happy because life is too short.”

Becky Pritchard contributed to this story.

Dick Broom

Dick Broom

Reporter at Mount Desert Islander
Dick Broom covers the towns of Mount Desert and Southwest Harbor, Mount Desert Island High School and the school system board and superintendent's office. He enjoys hiking with his golden retriever and finding new places for her to swim. [email protected]

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