With a 10 percent increase in chronic absenteeism and social anxieties in students after the COVID-19 lockdown, Greece Central School District has stepped up to help. It has partnered with Counslr, a mental health support platform, to increase student engagement and wellness.
“We’ve seen that it’s much harder to get students to engage and to feel comfortable in a social atmosphere,” says Christine Baker, director of student services and school improvement at Greece Central. “A lot of the social anxieties are relationship skills and conflict resolution skills.”
Greece Athena High is among the first group of public schools in the nation to use the Counslr platform. Others include Bronx Haven High School and Mott Haven Community High School in New York City.
The Counslr app offers 1,100 students and more than 150 faculty members at Greece Athena High access to mental health resources. The platform provides on-demand, text-based access to mental health professionals around the clock with a mission statement of “reaching the traditionally unreachable.”
“Those people who are traditionally unreachable usually don’t engage with mental health providers due to either cost, inconvenience or largely stigma,” says Joshua Liss, co-founder of Counslr. “It’s very tough to get an appointment with a therapist, generally. Most of them aren’t even taking new patients, 150 million Americans live in what’s a designated provider shortage zone.”
The Greece Central School District already has mental health support structures for students, including counselors, social workers, and psychologists. Greece Athena High also partners with Genesee Mental Health which provides in-school therapy to students. For faculty, the school district has an Employee Assistance Program. Counslr supplements these existing measures by making counseling more convenient and accessible.
“A lot of students that are choosing to engage in this Counslr app are students that haven’t typically sought counseling through a school counselor or social worker or outside therapist, and it’s meeting students’ needs that aren’t being seen currently,” Baker says.
Both students and faculty at Greece Athena High School have access to Counslr.
“Faculty are just as impacted by the mental health crisis taking place in the country and frankly, in the world,” Liss says. “It was crucial for us and for Athena to be able to make this available to the faculty, understanding how stressed they are just dealing with day-to-day life and how stressful the modern school environment can be.”
Greece Athena High School students are not allowed to use their phones during the school day, but Counslr will be available to them outside of school, when in-school resources are unavailable.
“We hope that we’re using a format that kids are gravitating towards, but in a way that actually can build skills versus cause more harm and damage when social media posts sort of can get out of control for students,” Baker said.
According to Liss, 83 percent of students using Counslr had never previously engaged with a mental health provider before, and nearly half of the sessions take place when providers are not traditionally available, like on nights or weekends. Counslr is also used three to five times more than employee assistance programs in corporate settings, he observes.
Counslr is compliant with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, even though it is not required for the service. Liss says maintaining privacy and confidentiality is important because it reduces the hesitance and fear to reach out to a mental health provider.
Conversations between the counselors on the app and the users of the app are confidential. If the user shows a need for more intensive support, a counselor might refer them to a place that offers longer-term care. If the user is at risk of harming themselves or others, there is an “SOS button” that the provider can press to retrieve the user’s location so a wellness check can be conducted.
After a session is completed, a post-session survey allows the user to provide feedback about their experience. This feedback is monitored, and if a counselor gets unfavorable feedback from many users, the team at Counslr will investigate the issue and intervene if needed. Liss says this hasn’t happened yet, something he attributes to the vetting and training process each counselor has to go through to be a provider on the app.
Athena High School is able to use Counslr’s help through American Rescue Plan Act funds.
“We have only one more year of those funds, and we definitely see how this ties into the impact of COVID on students’ mental health,” Baker said. “So it was good timing in terms of pilots to see how it would go, and if it’s something that we wanted to add more into a general fund going forward.”
The Greece school district plans to continue partnering with Counslr over summer break. Students and faculty still have access when school is not in session. The district will evaluate and consider making the app available to students and faculty in other schools as well.
“Mental health, wellness, social emotional skills and life skills are all tied to success in school. You can’t feel depressed every day and come to school and give your best academically,” Baker says. “Even if only 10 percent of the school population is taking advantage of it, we’re reaching kids we wouldn’t have likely reached, so to us those numbers really are what’s most important, is that we’re getting kids and faculty access to something that maybe we would have otherwise never known to give them access to.”
Jess Williams is a Rochester Beacon contributing writer and a student at Ithaca College. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected].