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Trauma counselor’s work with students helps keep schools safe

The life of a child, whether they are six or 16, can sometimes be a minefield of anxiety. What will my first-grade teacher be like? Will I know where to sit at lunch and will anyone want to sit with me?

All of these are typical feelings that students experience, but for some students life has thrown trauma at them that won’t dissolve with a kind word from a teacher on their first day of school or a place saved for them by a new friend at the lunch table. Their experiences have imprinted on their brains, which in turn affects their behavior.

Natalie Serafini, the trauma counselor who joined the team at the Loyalsock Township School District this year, described these experiences.

“They’re specific experiences that if a child has them before the age of 18, they would be more at risk for developing a number of mental health concerns or substance use or it just puts them at risk for high risk behaviors and not just learning problems,” Serafini said.

In order to determine what type of adverse childhood experiences a student may have or had in their lives, Serafini screens for several factors.

“Did a parent often or very often swear at you, insult you or put you down and humiliate you? It goes through physical, sexual and verbal abuse, domestic violence, and parental drug use. These bad things happen,” Serafini said, detailing some of the traumas with which children deal.

“And I have quite a variety of different types of experiences for the kids I see. It’s not just one particular traumatic experience. Some of them have been through many,” she added. “Every child who is referred to me has at least one adverse childhood experience. … The more a child experiences those adverse experiences, the more often, the more frequent, the more that it impacts their brain.”

In response to these experiences, Serafini noted, there is an automatic response triggered in the child.

“Depending on how a person reacts to loud noises or someone yelling, they can have those traumatic experiences,” she said. “They can kind of relive those.”

This can sometimes lead to emotional outbursts, aggression or some type of inexplicable behavior.

“Maybe we aren’t aware of what their triggers are yet. The more adverse experiences they have had, the higher the responses,” she said.

The important thing is early intervention, which is one of the reasons Loyalsock Township School District pursued a safe schools grant, which came through last year, in order to hire a trauma counselor to augment their counseling staff.

“Looking at our district population, understanding our students, an increase in mental health issues for students as well as family challenges,” Gerald McLaughlin cited as reasons for pursuing the new position.

“We looked at it as part of our Safe Schools grant and proposed hiring a trauma counselor staying ahead of everything and really being on the forefront of providing our students the resources”, McLaughlin said.

Is there a greater need for mental health intervention in the schools or just better detection?

According to Serafini, the need has always been there.

“I think the need has always been present to some degree,” she said. “But, I do see a growing population and increase in mental health needs. And that’s kind of a trend that I’ve seen in the past 10 years.”

The ability to identify students at risk sooner is a plus, but the shortage of resources outside of the school setting hinders the process once students are identified.

“Having a lack of mental health supports and agencies and also sometimes the follow through of getting connected with those makes it challenging to push the students to seek the support outside of school,” she said.

This can create a system where there is a large amount of time between identification of the need and the availability of help, which can frustrate the child and the parents.

“Sometimes, I think, there is a waitlist. But there is also a process to go through with managed care for insurance,” she said. “Then there’s an intake meeting and then sometimes there’s an evaluation meeting. After that there’s a visit to the psychologist again to look at further recommendations and then sometimes it’s waiting to set up that next meeting to talk about what service they’re going to provide. It just kind of gets drawn out and if the parents are hesitant, it can really be kind of off putting and feel really intrusive. It can also feel like no one’s helping us.”

She added that sometimes as all this is happening, suddenly a crisis arises and help is needed immediately.

“We need something now and we can’t get something. That makes it even more challenging,” she said.

Several other school districts in the area work with a local agency to deal with these issues. Montgomery Area School District just received a Safe Schools grant they indicated will be used for a mental health program.

“If we can meet those emotional, social traumatic issues for students and take care of some of those, then they can be better learners in the classroom,” McLaughlin said.

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