By Kelsey Ryan
JOPLIN, Mo. —
The Joplin School District is teaming up with area mental health agencies to make extra counseling available for students as a result of the May 22 tornado.
Five additional mental health professionals and five case managers who are trauma specialists will help the district work with families and students who are struggling emotionally.
“We can build buildings, but the emotional damage that this storm has caused is of a very significant concern and something we’re going to be watching closely for months, if not years,” Superintendent C.J. Huff said.
Discussion about the emotional impact on children and the need for counseling began the day after the tornado, Huff said.
In early July, Gov. Jay Nixon announced plans for the Joplin Child Trauma Treatment Center, using $2 million in state money. The center will provide mental health services to children and families affected by the tornado. Several local groups joined in the effort, including the school district; Ozark Center, which is the behavioral health division of Freeman Health System; the Missouri Department of Mental Health; the Children’s Center of Southwest Missouri; the Missouri Institute of Mental Health; and St. John’s Regional Medical Center.
Christen Stark, spokeswoman for Freeman Health System, said Ozark Center’s crisis hot line has seen a 12 percent increase in calls from children and teenagers since the tornado.
Janet Earl, who is coordinating mental health support for Joplin students, said about 50 of the 1,500 students enrolled in summer school showed some trauma symptoms, and two or three of those needed extensive support.
“A lot of these kids need someone who needs to understand, listen and help them talk through what they feel and experience, and help with a structure that is supportive and lets them move on,” Earl said. “About 90 percent are going to move on successfully.”
For the other 10 percent, Earl said, it is important that someone identify the children, link them to services and then make sure those services are available.
Dawnielle Robinson, clinical director for the Joplin Child Trauma Treatment Center, said the 10 mental health professionals going into the schools are trained in cognitive behavior therapy and other mental health techniques.
“The professionals will work with school personnel and in teams to determine which children have the highest level of need, more or less creating a team approach,” Robinson said.
The groups will try to reach as many children as possible initially and then will narrow the counseling to one-on-one as necessary. Teachers and school counselors will make referrals to Ozark Center professionals, Robinson said.
The support groups also will participate in as many back-to-school activities as possible so students grow comfortable around them. Some students may need to have play group support and individual support, depending on their age and needs, Earl said.
There are several symptoms that parents, families, teachers and those who work with children can look for, Robinson said. They include:
• Inability to fall asleep or unusual sleeping patterns.
• Frequent nightmares.
• Dramatic changes in eating habits and personality.
• Statements about self-harm.
• Emotional and scholastic regression, and the inability to think or plan for the future.
“With children, one of the biggest things we’re going to experience is distractibility and hyper-vigilance,” Robinson said. “Systemwide, that’s going to affect the schools the most.”
Earl said some children also may be extra clingy or avoid doing things they liked to do in the past, such as athletics or other activities. She said parents must pay attention to what children are saying, writing and drawing, and in particular any discussion of suicide.
Within two to three weeks after school starts, the newness of the routine may start to wear off, and it’s possible that students will start to show some significant behavioral changes then, Earl said. She said changes also may occur around holidays.