Weaving a Mental Health Safety Net
- Expertise: Student Wellness & Mental Health
- Position: Supervisor of Special Projects
- District: Hamilton Township School District, Hamilton Township, N.J.
Jeff Wellington has been many things during his 28-year career in schools.
Special education teacher. School counselor. Psychologist. Mental health crisis counselor.
From his time counseling students dealing with chronic stress to his firsthand knowledge of the struggles that many early-career teachers face, the roles have prepared Wellington—the supervisor of special projects for the Hamilton Township, N.J., schools—for the challenges of his current job: ensuring students and school employees address their mental health needs.
“He can relate to whoever he is with,” district Superintendent Frank Vogel said. “He has that human quality that you want with the person that you’re letting your guard down with.”
Wellington tapped into that humanity and experience to steer the school system through trying times after a series of student deaths rocked the school community.
Lessons from the Leader
- Surround yourself with wonderful people: When you hit the hurdles, roadblocks, and obstacles often associated with any worthwhile initiative, you will have that same group of wonderful people surrounding you for emotional support to keep pushing the effort forward.
- Be that caring adult: The human connection of caring opens the door to learning for all students and even more so for those students who have been closed off by adverse childhood experiences, chronic stress, and trauma.
- Be a lifelong learner: As educators, we must remain informed and mindful of how world changes impact the developing minds of our kids, and what best practices are needed to support our students socially and emotionally as well as academically for them to survive and thrive.
Starting in August 2014, three students—a 10-year-old and two 12-year-olds—died by suicide in an 18-month span. At least two former district students also died by suicide during that same period.
“We could not handle losing another child,” school board member Amy Hassa said. “Jeff’s task was to keep kids alive.”
In the years since, Wellington, 52, has led the development of a districtwide suicide risk-assessment protocol and social-emotional-learning curriculum and persuaded the district to hire more staff trained to assess and assist students dealing with mental-health concerns.
Wellington has also forged partnerships with mental-health professionals to foster understanding of how mental illness and adverse childhood experiences, such as poverty, stress or abuse, affect children. The focus on mental health and suicide remains a heavy, but necessary, load to bear.
“It’s something that’s difficult to talk about. Mental illness can be …, ” said Wellington, his words trailing off. “That’s kind of a taboo topic. People don’t want to be labeled mentally ill or ‘crazy.’ ”
Before the 3,000-student pre-K-8 school system put its suicide-assessment protocol into place, the district had only a handful of children each year being referred by school nurses, psychologists, or counselors for mental-health support.
Under the new system, Hamilton Township conducted 329 risk assessments during the 2018-19 school year, a number that includes staff referrals to the district’s counseling department for student behavior and comments—or for troubling messages or pictures students wrote or typed in a notebook or search engine on a school computer.
Importantly, the 12-point suicide-assessment protocol puts resources at the fingertips of counselors, social workers, and psychologists who provide recommendations for families seeking additional support for children. It’s also an online resource where parents can receive and sign documents related to a student’s suicide-risk assessment and even allows the district to make referrals for emergency medical and psychiatric evaluations in crisis situations.
In all, the supports have made it easier for all staff members, even those with no training or background in mental health, to link families to mental-health resources.
“We are catching more kids who are struggling with mental-health issues,” Wellington said. “It continues to be our goal to make the holes in our safety net smaller and smaller so our students don’t slip through.”
That safety net also includes education on the importance of suicide prevention.
As part of a weeklong curriculum, all middle school students learn about suicide risk factors and warning signs. Students can refer their schoolmates for support if they think they’re in trouble.
As more districts look to learn about the work done in Hamilton Township, especially efforts to prevent suicide, Wellington has become an in-demand speaker and presenter around the state. His popularity reflects the sobering fact that adolescent suicide has been rising among young people.
It is the second-most common cause of death among American youths after accidents, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A 2019 report from the center found that, between 2007 and 2017, suicide rates for teenagers 15 to 19 increased by 76 percent. For 10- to 14-year-olds, the suicide rate nearly tripled over that same period. And 12 percent of youth between the ages of 12 and 17 say they have experienced one major depressive episode in the past year, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
What’s more, in many schools across the United States, students who need an adult to talk to often don’t have easy access to one. The National Association for College Admission Counseling and the American School Counselor Association found that, in K-12 schools, the national average for student-counselor ratio in K-12 schools was 482-to-1 in 2014-15, the most recent year for which data were available.
“There are kids that are struggling emotionally and socially, and they’re not ready to learn when they’re struggling that much, so we need to be able to alleviate some of that stress for them, make them feel safe, make them feel comfortable, make them feel like they have a connection here,” Wellington said.
Since Hamilton Township’s mental-health initiative began, the district has added four people to its team of counselors, psychologists, and social workers, lowering the ratio of students to staff who can conduct risk assessments to 200-to-1.
Two counselors are present during every risk assessment, with one focusing on the child and the other updating the database that tracks the number of assessments, the types of recommendations and actions taken, and the grade level and gender of students who are assessed.
Before the staffing additions, “it seemed our counselors were always running to put out fires and not able to be proactive in their work,” Wellington said. “We now have the opportunity to take a breath and think about more prevention and intervention efforts rather than just dealing with a crisis every minute.”
While crisscrossing New Jersey to advocate for more mental-health support for students, Wellington has also focused on the well-being of school employees, who may struggle with issues of their own.
“Our staff come to school sometimes unready to teach because they’re struggling as well, either themselves or maybe with a family member,” he said.
Marylynn Stecher, Hamilton Township’s supervisor of special education and child-study teams, described Wellington as the de facto in-house counselor for staff who need someone to talk to.
Wellington leads book studies with counselors across the district, delving deeper into topics such as suicide prevention and helping children who struggle behaviorally.
To gauge school climate on topics ranging from student sense of belonging to concerns parents have about school safety, the district surveys staff members, parents, and all students in grades 3-8. It uses the information for annual strategic planning, providing administrators an opportunity to “take a hard look and find the gaps in the education we provide to our students,” Wellington said.
Over the past 25 years, the socioeconomic demographics in the Hamilton Township schools have shifted from relative affluence to nearly 50 percent of students qualifying for free and reduced-price lunch. Many more students live in foster homes or poverty—or have no place to live at all.
Mental illness can be … kind of a taboo topic.
That’s one reason why all teachers, not just counselors, now teach the district’s social-emotional-learning curriculum, starting in prekindergarten.
The other, Wellington concludes, is that bolstering students’ sense of safety and resilience is just good educational practice, period.
“Social-emotional learning is good for everybody, not just our kids who are dealing with trauma and chronic stress,” he said.
Hassa, the Hamilton Township school board member, is a social worker by day. She has worked alongside Wellington to conduct mental health training sessions for schools.
“He’s able to broach very difficult topics in a way that isn’t frightening or uncomfortable,” Hassa said.
And he celebrates all progress, big or small.
One day, Wellington called Hassa into his office, barely able to contain his excitement over an email from a parent.
A 2nd grade student had coached his frustrated mother through a count-and cool-down technique he learned in the district’s social-emotional learning curriculum.
“[Jeff] gets so excited about every positive outcome. For him, all that money, all that time, all that effort was worth it, because of that kid,” Hassa said. “That’s all it takes for him is making a difference in that one life.”