Aspen schools deal with mental health cases
Ask any candidate running for the Board of Education, and they can tell you they know of a student in Aspen public schools who has suffered from mental illness. In some cases, the person might be their own child, or a close friend of their child.
As experts and professionals in the fields of psychology and academics continue their efforts to destigmatize mental health, which intersects with all socioeconomic boundaries, it has been dogging Aspen’s schools of late. In today’s Aspen Times, the six candidates offer their takes on the state of mental health at the schools.
In early September, for instance, there was a delay in buses departing the Aspen campuses because of an issue with a student, putting the schools on lockdown. School officials said no one was hurt or placed in danger, but it gave rise to the issue of mental health at the schools.
While the incident was brought to the attention of parents within the Aspen School District with a blast email from interim Superintendent Tom Heald, there are a number of examples that don’t play out openly.
“We, as a middle school, are in complete panic mode,” middle school Dana Berro told the Board of Education on Sept. 23.
Berro sounded the alarm that “there is this huge cloud that is hovering our schools now because of how unhealthy our schools are, and it’s affecting anyone.”
Interim Superintendent Tom Heald, who was at the meeting, said Friday the district currently is seeking two full-time licensed clinical workers to fill the void. Last year the schools had one licensed clinical worker, provided by MindSprings Health, to be available when student crisis arose. That worker has since left the district, Heald said.
The position was funded through the ASD’s partnership with the city, county and Aspen Valley Hospital, he said. With increased funding to compensate two clinical workers now, the local labor crunch also is hitting the district, he said.
“Last year we were able to respond to crisis events quite often in times less than one minute,” he said. “When a child presented themselves in a real crisis state, we could help out that child. We could help that family. Now fast-forward from in April and May and June to September.”
While the district has openings for two mental health crisis specialists, it currently has two full-time psychologists, a counselor at both the elementary and middle schools, and two counselors at the high school, Heald said.
“So they’re busy,” he said.
The district does not have immediate data available concerning the number of mental health cases over the years, but Heald said, “We’re definitely seeing a spike in the number of children that are attending schools that we find that can be a danger and we have to respond accordingly.”
Aspen Family Connections has become a valuable resource to the school and families within the district.
The on-campus service, formed in 2016, provides financial assistance to needy families and can put them and other families in touch with emotional-support and mental health organizations. It also holds special events at the campus, such as documentary screenings and panel discussions that address issue such as psychological well-being.
AFC advocates a collaborative approach to place a kid on the right track through support organizations using referrals and other means. It starts with prevention, said Katherine Sand, executive director of AFC.
“When we talk about mental health,” Sand said, “we take this in a totally holistic view of it. We talk about extracurricular activities — because there’s really nothing that doesn’t help your mental health, resilience and everything that keeps people whole and happy and successful.”
She used art therapy as an example.
Aspen Education Foundation has been a supportive partner in the schools’ addressing mental health, Heald and Sand noted.
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Many members of the community wrote to laud the former Skico executive and city councilman for his friendship, dedication to family and community-minded spirit over more than two decades in Aspen.