Some people see the psychologists at Fairfax County public schools as a special forces unit, deployed in times of crisis, according to DeDe Bailer, the coordinator of psychology services for the school system.
Bailer said she understands the parallels.
“We’re in schools, on the ground, doing our work every single day under the larger public radar,” she said.
However, she and her department are striving to change that view. What most people miss actually makes up some of their most important duties. They work on a daily basis to support students and prevent crises before they happen, rather than only coming off the shelf in dire circumstances.
“We’re there for the everyday problems — for kids who have broken up with someone or gotten a bad grade on a test,” Bailer said. “Those conversations, that’s what we’re good at. We provide a strong net of support for students to fall back on.”
The school system places a premium on communication and prevention efforts, including “Wellness Weeks” at county schools, which educate students on physical and mental health, and peer-mentoring programs
High schools start each year with another prevention initiative: depression screening. At Madison High School, students are shown a short film on how people can recognize symptoms of depression in themselves and others and then are asked to complete a questionnaire. Based on their responses, Dan Charneco, the school psychologist, follows up with those students deemed potentially at risk.
“We probably reach out to more kids than we need to reach out to, but that’s OK,” Charneco said. “We want to do more than we need to. We aim to go above and beyond the call of duty.”
Several highly publicized suicides among county students in the past few years threw the school system’s psychological services into the public eye.
According to Bailer, those tragic incidents did not change her department’s mission. If anything, they strengthened their resolve to make mental health issues a part of the daily conversation at schools.
At Madison High School, Charneco said he has seen the conversation on mental health turn the corner in the last few years.
“People are more open to talking about mental-health issues, not judging them in a negative way,” Charneco said. “I’ve found that most kids here are really motivated for things to get better and will initiate contact with me themselves.”
As part of the push for increased mental health awareness, this summer the county started a mental health training seminar for county teenagers.
The first Mental Health First Aid course for teenagers took place over two days in August, and 13 students from five high schools participated. Four of the students were from Madison, and the school paid the $25 course fee for each of them.
“We see this as a really important step for our students and our community,” Charneco said. “We really want to support those who want to take part.”
The training includes presentations about recognizing the symptoms of mental illness, as well as role-playing and problem-solving scenarios so students can start putting what they have learned into practice.
The next training session is coming up in the first weeks of December, and registration is currently open. So far, students from eight more schools have signed up, according to Bailer.
“Young people in our schools are now talking to one another about depression and mental illness in a way we hadn’t seen before, and encouraging one another to seek help,” Bailer said. “We’re trying to foster that core belief that if you see something affecting someone, you have a responsibility to say something. We are creating a community and a culture of responsibility.”