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Addressing mental health in schools "takes a village"

The American School Counselor Association's recommends a ratio of one counselor to every 250 students. (KTVL/News 10)

Mental illness is believed to have been a factor in the tragic school shooting that took place in Parkland, Florida-- calling to question the role that schools play in addressing mental illnesses in students.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, half of all lifetime cases of mental illness occur by age 14.

A local middle school counselor said schools are most successful when they take a community approach and establish trust with students.

"First, I need to make a positive connection with the student," said Eli Bland, a Counselor at North Middle School in Grants Pass. "If they don't feel comfortable talking with me, then we're not making progress. It's building that connection, making sure that they know they have a trusted person they can talk to."

Bland said school counselors are a first line of defense when it comes to treating students with mental illness, but the proper measures have to be taken in the classroom and at home.

"How do we get the teachers on board to help support and encourage the students as well? How do we get the parents involved, how do we get other family members involved?" said Bland when explaining the importance of creating consistency and support in a student's life. "So we just start to grow our team."

Bland said that students with mental illnesses can be referred to the school's counseling services in a variety of ways. Students can come on their own, or they can be referred by anyone who believes they need to see a counselor.

He even recalls instances when school bus drivers and custodians have contacted counselors about the well-being of students.

"The big thing is just not being afraid to talk about the subject," said Bland. "A lot of times people put it as a taboo topic and try to dance around it or avoid it. We need to have open, honest conversations about mental health--mental health awareness-- and ways that we can support individuals."

Carrying 15 years of school counseling experience, Bland says the greatest challenge in helping students with mental health concerns is a lack of resources.

There are just under 800 students enrolled at North Middle School, all of whom are assigned to one of two trained counselors. The work load means counselors don't have time to treat students with mental health concerns at length.

Instead, they connect families with community resources and specialists who are able to provide proper care.

The nearly 400 to one student-to-school-counselor ratio far surpasses the American School Counselor Association's recommendation of one counselor to every 250 students.

The association's most recent report shows that national student-to-counselor ratio was 482-1. In Oregon, the average is 571 students per school counselor.

While Bland said the counselors are only able to do so much, Options for Southern Oregon, an organization providing mental health help to people of all ages, has a presence at North Middle School and other campuses in southern Oregon.

You can contact Options by clicking here, or by calling (541) 476-2373.

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