Reading, writing and arithmetic. These used to be the primary reasons children attended public schools. Over time, public schools have become more than just the academic centers in their communities. Schools no longer provide solely an education these days. They are often responsible for feeding, clothing and providing basic care for the students in their charge. Due to this shift in responsibility, educators are sometimes faced with figuring how to meet all of their students’ needs. These needs are now including medical and mental health care; often without the necessary support. Bains and Diallo (2015) reported that 20- 25% of students come to school with some sort of mental health issue.
With many schools implementing trauma informed practices, having access to mental health services is a critical component to supporting children. Students come to the school system with a host of concerns, many of which can be rooted to Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES). As a result, educators have a much heavier lift in day to day interactions with their students. We know that often students (particularly young students) may report a stomach ache or a headache when they are experiencing the effects of an ACE. In many schools, school staff would be tasked with addressing this. While most educators would certainly address this, there are better options to be explored.
School -based health centers (SBHCs) have been on the rise in various parts of the country. In West Virginia, we have less than 200 statewide. In Kanawha County, we have 8 out of over 80 schools. School-based health centers are an incredible value to schools and are of a particular value to communities. The benefits for parents/caregivers are paramount. If a student were to become sick at school, he or she could be seen at the SBHC by a fully licensed medical professional. A parent/caregiver would not have to take off work in order to take their child to the physician. Worrying about having to take time off can be an additional stressor for families. Additionally, SBHCs can be a one-stop shop for vaccinations for multiple children in a single family. With an ongoing drug crisis, wrap around care is critical for the families in our communities. SBHCs can be the initial point of contact for a student’s family member who may need assistance with a substance disorder. The benefit is twofold:
1- A family member is getting help and
2- A child now has some potential harm reduced in their home and life.
Arnseon, Hudson, Lee (2019) found that school-based health centers increase access to healthcare for students, families and community members and that leads to better health outcomes overall. Of particular interest for West Virginia is how SBHCs can benefit our rural communities where medical providers may be few. Access to healthcare is a significant issue in rural America; transportation to a large town or city can be an obstacle. However, being able to be seen by a medical professional at the nearest school in the community would ease that burden.
In more and more locations around the country, medical care (including mental health) has become an additional support provided at schools through school-based health centers. These can look different from place to place. Some are full fledged clinics inside schools that treat students and staff, while others can provide those same services to families and community members. An additional model that has been utilized is a fully equipped mobile clinic that can be stationed at a specific school in a community on pre- scheduled days.
Access to quality healthcare helps everyone and should be a right. But perhaps one of the most important pieces of SBHCs is how it encourages the building of relationships amongst all stakeholders. There is an inherent trust that families place in schools and schools tend to build on that. Imagine if schools, families, community members, students and healthcare providers could have this amazing relationship that results in accessible community healthcare. Everybody wins.
Arenson, M., Hudson, P. J., Lee, N., & Lai, B. (2019). The Evidence on School-Based Health Centers: A Review. Global Pediatric Health. https://doi.org/10.1177/2333794X19828745
Bains, R. M., & Diallo, A. F. (2016). Mental Health Services in School-Based Health Centers: Systematic Review. The Journal of School Nursing, 32(1), 8–19. https://doi.org/10.1177/1059840515590607
Amber Brown, MA, is a Kanawha County teacher, a member of the ACES Coalition, member of AFT-Kanawha and a delegate for the Kanawha Valley Labor Council. She is a member of her school’s Positive Behavior Support Team, is passionate about children’s mental health and trauma informed practices.