Support for Students
Novant Health and Brunswick County Schools work together to expand telepsychiatry for middle and high school students.
All of us understand the feeling of anxiety, the fear that a situation will not be positive. This stress and worry can be triggered while waiting for an outcome. Taking a test, interviewing for a job or choosing the perfect outfit can generate pacing, nervous twitches or more serious symptoms such as self-deprecation and suicidal thoughts. An unflattering picture or an unfavorable comment posted on a social media platform can cause anguish, especially for teens and preteens.
Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention state more than 20 percent of youth from 13 to 18 either currently experience or at some point in their lives have had a seriously debilitating mental illness.
Novant Health and Brunswick County Schools (BCS) have partnered to curtail the number of children in distress. In June 2021 Malika Neal, a licensed clinical social worker with Novant Health and its project coordinator and primary therapist for the program, began using telepsychiatry to assist the students.
Telepsychiatry, also called telemedicine and telehealth, uses telecommunications or videoconferencing to provide mental health services.
The National Institute of Mental Health says research suggests that telehealth can be effective for attention deficit disorder, hyperactivity disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety as well as other conditions.
Neal says the biggest mental health problems BCS students face are depression and anxiety.
“We still see students readjusting to getting back in the classroom after COVID,” she says. They may have self-esteem issues, aren’t aware of coping strategies, are overwhelmed with schoolwork or with meeting their peers, she adds.
When school counselors, social workers or other school personnel identify a student in distress, they take the student to a safe, private room and console the student before he or she can videoconference with Neal. The program initially assisted students at the five middle schools, but within months it accommodated the three high schools and two elementary schools. The program expanded in the 2022-23 school year to include all 20 schools. It will continue in the 2023-24 school year, which includes nearly 13,000 students. There is no charge for this service. A three-year, $400,000 grant from the Duke Endowment makes the program possible.
Before telepsychiatry began, parents picked up the student or emergency medical services transported the student to the hospital. Now school personnel explain the service to parents at Open House, and Novant distributes printed material.
“It’s a team effort,” Neal says “We surround students with a good support system and teach positive coping strategies. The first year Neal videoed with 51 students. This past year it jumped to 140, primarily from the middle schools and high schools.
She has seen an increase in “school avoidance,” she says. “More students don’t want to go to school. Some don’t want to stay the whole day.”
To counter this situation, the student may have an adjusted schedule or an abbreviated school day. Those who experience anxiety during a test may take the test in a different room from their classroom. More serious conditions students experience are self-harm and suicidal thoughts. To address this situation, Neal added short-term, brief therapy sessions used as a bridge until the students are connected to an outside therapist and a primary care provider.
“The partnership with Novant Health telepsychiatry has been instrumental in supporting our students in need of immediate mental health intervention,” says Melissa Quinlan, executive director of exceptional children and student support services at BCS. “These services and supports strongly contribute to school success for those students experiencing mental health conditions.”
She adds that the parents she has worked with have appreciated the ability to be easily connected with mental health services and aftercare resources.
“We are really excited to continue our services in BCS, and we really enjoy our partnership with them in ways to help the families and communities,” Neal says. “We are advocating for this program to remain sustainable and move forward so we can offer these services in years to come and offer more extended services.”
Elizabeth Wassum, philanthropy manager at Novant Health, explains that Novant Health’s involvement is part of its behavioral health campaign called A Path Forward. In 2020 Novant Health Brunswick Medical Center Foundation launched A Path Forward, a $3.5 million campaign to increase behavioral health services in the region. Through this campaign, Novant is committed to providing the treatment, outreach programs and community education necessary to meet this dangerous crisis head-on.
“The [telepsychiatry] program provides BCS team members to deescalate the situation and provide the help the student needs,” Wassum says.
Novant is in the process of raising funds to increase behavioral health services in Brunswick County. A plan to expand the emergency department is underway.
“We are receiving patients who are in crisis,” Wassum says. “We can have a dedicated space to keep those patients safe and healthy while they are here until we find a place for them to receive continued care. Finding additional places for them is a challenge.”