School-linked Mental Health Program at Stillwater Area High School is One of Many in State

Schools place a priority on the mental wellness of students.
Nora Eiesland, licensed marriage and family therapist, works with students at Stillwater Area High School’s Wellness Center.

Childhood and adolescence should be a time of joy and adventurous spirit. But life isn’t always easy. Fortunately, during times of struggle, our local schools are there to help students and their families navigate through mental health issues in order to reclaim their joy.

Imagine a health problem that affects one in five American children (a problem that can be severe enough to interfere with their day-to-day function) for which only 20 percent of those affected get the help they need. According to FamilyMeans clinical director Pat Rogers, that issue is mental health.

The good news is our community offers resources for those students such as Stillwater Area High School’s (SAS) Health and Wellness Center, which operates onsite and is open daily to serve the school’s 2,000-plus teenage students.

“We are over-busy with students using our services,” says Nora Eiesland, Wellness Center mental health specialist and a licensed marriage and family therapist at FamilyMeans, a Stillwater-based provider of family therapy and counseling that is also the host agency for the Wellness Center.

Other partners include chemical health specialists from the Youth Service Bureau, and a dietician sponsored by Lakeview Hospital. “And of course our biggest partnership is with the school staff,” Rogers adds.

“We provide the whole gamut of mental health services,” Eiesland says, including counseling for school-related, peer-related and family stress; anxiety, suicidal thoughts and self-harm; and eating disorders. A student dealing with the death of a family member or friend, for example, can really struggle in class, Eiesland says. But if he/she understands how the brain and nervous system work, the science of their body’s and mind’s response to stress, they have a better chance of developing the skills they need to cope with the situation.

Students are made aware of Wellness Center services in their health classes. They might walk in for help, or be referred by a parent, teacher or guidance counselor. “Money is not a barrier,” Eiesland says. If a family has medical insurance, attempts are made to use it, but all students are eligible for care. Eiesland says she always tries to contact a parent when a student seeks services, as “we place very high value on parental input and involvement.” In fact, while assessment of a child’s mental health may occur without parental consent, treatment may not. “In almost all of the cases, parents really want to help,” she adds.

Rogers says that nationwide, school-linked mental health programs have grown in the past five years, right along with community and school initiatives like the “Make It OK” campaign, which encourages people to talk about mental health issues; and the “Trauma Sensitive Schools Project,” which involves training educators to recognize anxiety in students of all ages and to ensure that all children traumatized by exposure to adverse experiences succeed in school (according to Rogers, these are national programs and not specifically used in Stillwater). Rogers says the programs attempt to de-stigmatize mental illness and reduce barriers to access for treatment of mental health issues.

According to the Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS), as of June 2014, 36 different community family health agencies, including FamilyMeans, have received school-linked mental health grants which are valued at nearly a total of $45.4 million per year.

Eiesland believes the stigma associated with seeking and receiving care and counseling for mental health problems is lessening, in part because it may be somewhat generational. “Youth today,” she says, “are a lot more open and wanting to work on their mental health.” She sees her opportunity to work with Stillwater area students as invaluable, as “many kids experience crises during their school years, but with the real growth in understanding about the human brain and behavior, we can help.”

For more information about The Wellness Center at Stillwater Area High School, visit the high school’s website here.