Student mental health needs a top priority for school social workers

by Kate Evans

Morgan County Schools social work department discussed their growth and challenges at the August 3 school board meeting.

Social workers provide individual and group counseling, mental health screenings, crisis intervention and prevention programs for students.


Student mental health challenges included stigma, grief and loss, low self-esteem, lack of healthy coping skills and lack of  parental or family support and continuum of care, said Special Education Director Nicole Hiles who oversees lead Social Worker Christina Freels and the department.

Living in a small town where everyone knows you, lack of recreation and job opportunities and social media are other challenges facing kids.

Students’ classroom challenges include low attendance, parental instability, lack of motivation, cell phone usage, behavioral issues and disruptions, staff/teacher shortages and untreated mental health disorders.

Family challenges for students are also a reality. Those range from   poverty, hunger, addiction, incarceration, lack of basic needs, homelessness, unemployment, lack of transportation, lack of parent education and family members with mental health disorders.

Hiles said that students as young as fourth grade are experimenting with drugs and experiencing depression and suicidal thoughts.

“They’re already at risk in fourth grade,” she said.

Pandemic hits students hard

Screenings conducted in Morgan County Schools showed that the number of students reporting having thoughts of self-harm and death have doubled since the onset of the pandemic, Hiles said.

Berkeley Springs High School’s percentages of students expressing thoughts of self-harm went from 7% to 14% and Warm Springs Middle School’s percentages went from 5% to 16%.  Hiles said numbers doubled from 25 to 50 kids.

Environmental stressors are higher for kids with social isolation, cancelled events, family illness and increased use of technology, she noted.

A lot of virtual outreach occurred during the pandemic plus small group online sessions.

Social workers can do home visits too, Hiles noted.  They were able to reach the kids that sought out help.


The Morgan County Schools social work department has grown from three social workers and one master’s degree intern in 2015 to eight social worker positions for the 2021-2022 school year.

Hiles said that Freels is a huge reason why they’ve grown their program and gotten grants.

Former Social Worker Gary McDaniel began the program around 2015.

The Morgan County Schools social work department has given presentations to state officials, has highly credentialed staff and is one of the highest credentialed social work programs within schools and the state, said Hiles. They have built trust and relationships with parents, students and the community.

The department’s mission is “to meet the academic as well as the social-emotional and basic needs of ‘Every Child, Every Day.’”

Their vision is “Building resilience by creating a culture and a climate of trauma-sensitive practices and programs.”

Social workers are looking to find sustainable funding sources, build family engagement, increase community resources and responses to mental health concerns, to collaborate with teachers, offer staff training and support, implement fulltime supports at the high school, middle school, intermediate school and Widmyer Elementary and permanent supports at Pleasant View Elementary and Paw Paw Schools.

Screening, small groups & counseling in place

This year the Expanded School Mental Health grant program has put social workers in Berkeley Springs High School, Warm Springs Middle School, Warm Springs Intermediate School and Paw Paw Schools, Hiles said.

Warm Springs Middle School will have screenings, suicide prevention, small groups and family engagement.  The middle school will also have a social worker providing in-school therapy to students through East Ridge Health Systems funding.

Warm Springs Intermediate School will have mental health screenings, substance abuse prevention, small groups and family engagement.

Berkeley Springs High School has screenings, small group counseling and individual therapy.

Expanded school mental health is a multi-tiered system of support for student mental health that   includes prevention, early intervention and treatment.

Tiers of support

Tier 1 prevention and classroom programs include the Morgan County Partnership’s Positive Actions, Too Good For Drugs and Violence, Screening, Brief Intervention and Referral to Treatment (SBIRT) screenings, school suicide prevention presentations, bullying prevention clubs and other efforts.

School counselors and the Morgan County Partnership are vital partners in the Tier 1 efforts, Hiles said.

Tier 2 small group intervention programs include the high school Diversity group and groups on grief and loss, self-esteem, social skills, tolerance,  anxiety, life skills, conflict resolution and stress and anger management and Teen Court.

Tier 3 intensive intervention includes suicide and risk of harm assessments, crisis intervention, school-based therapy, referral to treatment, SBIRT counseling and East Ridge Health Systems in-school therapy.

The Screening, Brief Intervention and Referral to Treatment (SBIRT) screenings check for students at high risk for mental health issues like depression, suicide and drug and alcohol abuse.

The Valley Health Substance Abuse Grant for grades k-5 provides social workers to Warm Springs Intermediate School, Pleasant View Elementary and Widmyer Elementary.

Hiles said they would talk to Valley Health about getting program funding for the next three years.

There are also four Communities in Schools facilitators that will work one on one with students in need. Each will have a caseload of 25 students the first year, Hiles said.

The department is working with families and empowering kids to be successful, Hiles said.

“It takes a village to raise these kids,” Hiles stressed.