This story was featured in our 2022 Community Impact Report. Read more stories and see our impact here.
On the first week of classes, a student visited the mental health clinician, Mi’chelle McCoy’s, office at Romig Middle School. The student was experiencing severe social anxiety, crying, throwing up, and missing class. They had recently suffered the loss of close family members and were being passed between homes.
To support the student, Mi’chelle walked with them to class and even sat with them when needed most. She worked with the family, teachers, and school staff to identify ways they could best support the student. During their sessions, Mi’chelle worked with them on positive reinforcement, exposure therapy, and helped them untangle harmful thinking patterns surrounding her fear of social situations.
The student now reports feeling more confident to go to class on their own and even enjoys lunch with a friend every day. They are relying less on Mi’chelle’s support but know she is there if they need her.
For a young person experiencing these challenges, a visit with a therapist may have been a daunting prospect. Therapy alone would require courage, not to mention the task itself would require leaving the school and extra coordination to attend appointments across town. With VOA Alaska’s School-Based Services, students can drop into clinicians’ office on the way to their lockers.
As Brendon Wilson, Principal at Begich Middle School, explains, “The resource for [students] is right down the hall. They know that if they don’t have an appointment, they can just check in. It’s a safe place to go when you need that support.”
Sean Prince, Principal at Bartlett High School, agrees, saying that receiving the mental health support students need “feels very much tied to our school in a way that makes kids feel very comfortable. Like, ‘Oh, it’s just a part of my day.’”
Connecting to “Do What’s Best for the Kids”
VOA Alaska’s School-Based Services began in 2015, providing mental health support in one Anchorage high school before growing to four in 2018. The following year, shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic, VOA partnered with Providence Alaska to expand services district wide and better integrate clinicians into their schools’ environments. Today, VOA Alaska has embedded clinicians at Romig Middle School, Begich Middle School, Bartlett High School, and eight other schools within the Anchorage School District. An additional four schools are served by Providence.
At any given time, you can find our mental health clinicians presenting at a school-wide assembly about wellness and self-care, engaging in conversation with students in the lunchroom, helping a student with anger management, completing an assessment so a student can receive more intensive care through VOA Alaska’s services, providing a supportive space for a teacher to share and find mental health resources, or joining other clinicians to offer crisis support at schools across the city.
The breadth of services provided by school-based clinicians is wide, but as Jackie Wallen, Director of VOA Alaska’s School-Based Program explains, it’s all about “being that bridge builder between schools, families, and the mental health community. We’re connecting those systems together to do what’s best for the kids.”
For teachers and staff, the importance of having clinicians onsite cannot be overstated. “It takes another conversation out of their hands,” says Mr. Prince, “and allows someone who’s been professionally trained to take that on.”
Normalizing Asking for Help
With clinicians now accessible and visible within the school, mental health, wellness, and self-care is becoming normalized for students.
Brendan describes an incident occurring shortly after students returned to school during the pandemic, in which one student was found punching lockers and yelling profanities. A staff member approached him gently, asking what he needed.
“And what he needed was to go see our clinician,” Mr. Wilson says. “That kid who was acting out physically had built a relationship with the clinician, where just when an adult asks, ‘What do you need?’ He was able to identify those services.”
Some students are even continuing their sessions after they graduate, using that support to help them through the transition to adulthood. When mental health and wellness is integrated so closely with the daily educational experience, it makes seeking support for your depression or anxiety feel more like asking for help on your math homework.
The clinician isn’t hidden away in some corner office and seen as an intimidating, unknown stranger. As Mr. Prince describes his school’s clinician, they are “just another member of the Bartlett family.”
“Our mental health needs have never been bigger than they are right now,” Mr. Wilson says. “We could probably use several more clinicians, but I feel really lucky that we have this support here at our school. It makes the school feel like a safer place for our kids.”
Building a Healthier Community, Together
With VOA Alaska mental health professionals integrated in the school culture, there is no delay in getting students the help they need. We are creating a generation of young Alaskans who know how to ask for help and know how to build trusting relationship with adults. We are teaching them how to prioritize their mental health and wellness.
Our School-Based program removes stress away from teachers while providing them their own avenue for seeking support, which improves the educational experience for students and strengthens their roles as future community leaders.
Together in our partnership with Providence Alaska and the Anchorage School District, our clinicians provide access to mental health support for over 9,000 students—representing 20% of all enrolled students. It’s a number we’re proud of, but one that shows how much need still exists to provide on-site support for thousands more students and staff.
Our partnership allows us to provide prevention, intervention, and postvention all in one program, all in one school, all just down the hall from the students that need it most. Our immediate on-site response, trained crisis support, and a direct connection with VOA Alaska’s expansive continuum of care for additional services and supports.
Together, we’re strengthening schools and families, and empowering the next generation of Alaskans.
But for our school-based clinicians, it’s the little wins that they celebrate, the small reminders that they are making a positive difference in these young lives. Like those moments when they can walk into a lunchroom to see a student who has overcome severe social anxiety now enjoying lunch with their new best friend.