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Members of Spokane district’s mental health team describe effort to aid students with distance-learning

UPDATED: Sat., Aug. 29, 2020

On the Northwest Passages Virtual Forum, NWP coordinator Kristi Burns, upper left, leads a discussion with (clockwise from upper right) Marilis Thomas, mental health supervisor; David Crump, director of Mental Health Services; and Julie Cruz, mental health supervisor. (Jesse Tinsley/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
On the Northwest Passages Virtual Forum, NWP coordinator Kristi Burns, upper left, leads a discussion with (clockwise from upper right) Marilis Thomas, mental health supervisor; David Crump, director of Mental Health Services; and Julie Cruz, mental health supervisor. (Jesse Tinsley/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Northwest Passages Book Club coordinator Kristi Burns interviewed Spokane Public Schools mental health team members Julie Cruz, David Crump and Marilis Thomas on Thursday about some of the challenges facing students as they approach an indefinite stretch of distance learning.

“We’ve been busy all summer working with kids and their families,” said Cruz, the district’s mental health supervisor, describing the virtual and socially distanced in-person visits that mental health supervisors will continue to provide as the school year begins.

“If there are any emotional fragilities or mental health concerns, it doesn’t stop in the summer,” said Crump, the SPS’s Director of mental health services.

“So our clinicians have been working really hard to engage families through a variety of telehealth modalities.”

When it comes to younger students, Crump said, supervisors have noticed greater parental involvement since beginning virtual mental health check-ins. Adolescents prefer group sessions to one-on-one meetings over Zoom, but they have been receptive to phone sessions. In many ways, he added, Zoom has enabled clinicians to get into more student homes than ever before.

“As things are always changing, we are always implementing new protocols and procedures with our staff,” mental health supervisor Thomas said. “It’s changing all the time, and as we enter the school year, I know our staff is really gearing up to partner and collaborate with their school buildings, teachers and administrations so that they can connect with as many families and kids as possible.”

“We’re looking at this sort of behavioral surge hitting in the fall,” Crump said, expressing concerns about a rise in anxiety and depression among students as the school year begins with a vast majority of classes held online.

Needs vary as students in their care experience mental health issues ranging from social anxiety to thought disorders like schizophrenia.

Crump said the structure of school and defined start and stop times will help students and teachers.

Burns asked whether plans are in place to provide software that will enable parents to track when students start typing words or searching topics that indicate depression.

Crump explained the schools have put a lot of effort into building adequate firewalls on the Chromebooks students are taking home, but moderation and cooperation from parents are still necessary.

“Parents and guardians are our partners, and we need their help,” Crump said.

“Right now, we’re really going to be relying on parents (more than teachers) to be our referral sources, because they have their eyes on their kids and they’re going to know best if there are changes,” Thomas said, explaining that parents are encouraged to reach out to their schools about mental health support.

Staff will provide resources to inform parents about some of the signs and symptoms for which they should watch.

Examples of red flags, Crump said, include diminished enjoyment of previously enjoyed activities, increased complaints about body aches, unusual changes in sleeping and eating patterns and unusual neglect of personal hygiene among others.

“The silver lining,” Thomas said, is that help is much more available. Even if there is not a therapist available in a particular building, the virtual platform allows schools more ability to expand the reach of services from other buildings.

To view the forum recording, visit spokesman.com/northwest-passages.

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