It’s the middle of summer but Harrisburg Middle School is a hive of activity. Between summer school classes and renovations, it’s a little chaotic for school counselor Brett Rawlings, who just wrapped up his first year at the school.
Harrisburg itself is a small town of fewer than 300 people, but the school serves the larger surrounding area, which is primarily farmland. As the K-through-8 counselor, Rawlings is responsible for some 400 students, and he deals with a range of issues.
"Peer relationship issues, drama, rumors," are common, Rawlings said. "But I do also see a number of students that struggle with internalizing problems; could be anxiety, depression that sort of thing."
Rawlings says he works to make sure the students know he’s there and he tries to leave open time in his schedule for one-on-one or small group meetings. Rawlings has a personal stake in his work as well, having struggled with mental health issues as a teen growing up in a rural area.
"I really didn’t see the counselor much at all," Rawlings explained. "As a profession we’re trying to do a better job of being visible and making known to people what our role is and how we can help."
But with hundreds of students, it’s hard to keep track of every individual. So the school uses a checklist that all students and teachers fill out three times a year, with questions covering the issues Rawlings looks out for. "With that data, we’re able to see which students are self-reporting risk in these various domains," Rawlings said.
The questionnaire is part of a multi-year study coordinated in collaboration with the University of Missouri. In February, the university announced it had received a $10 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education for a national center that will build on that research.
In June, the National Center for Rural School Mental Health held a kickoff conference in Columbia, with partners from the University of Virginia, the University of Montana, and officials from rural school districts.
Dr. Wendy Reinke, a professor of educational, school & counseling psychology, is one of the co-directors of the center. "People wear a lot of different hats in these buildings, we had a superintendent who is also the bus-driver, so they play a lot of different roles," Reinke said.
One of the center's main goals, according to Reinke, is to equip teachers in rural schools, who often end up as the point people for their students’ mental health. "Some of the data collection tools that we use in our schools now just gather data around certain risk factors that we know can lead to later mental health challenges," she explained. "So it’s really trying to catch students early before the mental health problems become engrained."
The challenge then is, even if they spot problems early, it can be hard to get students care. Fewer than 30 of Missouri’s 114 counties have in-patient psychiatric facilities, and even seeing a therapist can involve hours of travel from rural areas. Reinke says one possible solution is telehealth, but it’s technology the center will need to study more in-depth. That’s something Emily Doolittle, from the U.S. Department of Education is looking forward to seeing the center tackle.
"I’m really kind of waiting with my breath held to see like what does that really mean, because you hear that people have internet connections, broadband, but I know that can be somewhat limited in rural areas," Doolittle said.
Going forward, the conference attendees will give feedback to Reinke and her team, which they will then use in the tools they develop. She says the next goal for the center will be to pilot the new assessment system with a rural school district in the fall.
In Harrisburg, Rawlings has his own goals as a counselor.
"My goal is just getting to know each kid, know every name of every kid, it’s a practical goal but it’s a tough one, to make sure that each student knows that there’s someone in the building that they can go to for help," Rawlings said.
And soon, with a national center based just a half hour to the south, Rawlings could have somewhere to go for help as well.