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School nurses know better than anyone that a child who shows up in their office with chronic stomachaches may actually be struggling with something more serious—perhaps depression, maybe anxiety.
Increasingly, schools are on the front lines of the surge in mental health conditions in children and adolescents, and since 2014, McLean has been helping school nurses deal with this increase.
The McLean School Nurse Liaison Project provides education and consultative services to nurses and other staff at 526 schools of all types—public, private, charter, and vocational. These schools educate nearly one-quarter of the state’s students, so the project’s impact is considerable. While the program focuses on southeastern Massachusetts and the Cape and Islands, more and more schools from other areas of eastern Massachusetts are asking for help. The service is free to schools, thanks to the generous support of McLean National Council members Bob and Nancy Anthony, longtime adolescent mental health advocates and philanthropists, who funded the program for its first five years.
“School nurses are ideally situated to take a major role in child mental health and wellness,” said Bob Anthony. “They have the requisite medical training to discuss prescriptions with pediatricians and are typically the first people outside the family to see somatic symptoms or other warning signals. Beyond helping individual students, Nancy and I think that the school nurse—when allowed a voice—can enhance the entire school climate.”
Julie Love, MSN, APRN, director of the McLean School Nurse Liaison Project, says that despite their pivotal roles in behavioral health care, school nurses are often “left out of the loop” once kids start receiving services. “Then, when there’s a crisis, when the child is having a meltdown at school, they want the nurse to solve it,” said Love. “But most schools have little professional development for staff about mental health, and with these issues on the rise, school nurses are looking for resources and training to help them meet this critical need.”
That’s where Love comes in.
Love gives about 80 presentations to school staff each year on topics ranging from psychiatric medication to coping skills, self-harm to substance misuse, ADHD to trauma, and the impact of social media to depression. Anxiety has always been one of her most popular presentations, evidence of how prevalent it is among schoolchildren.
About 7% of children ages 3 to 17 have been diagnosed with anxiety and many cases go undiagnosed. While school nurses initially were the largest part of her audiences, more recently, teachers, paraprofessionals, and school psychologists are attending in greater numbers. “Nurses are the access point of this program, but it helps the entire school,” said Love.
Calls to Love for consultations might involve questions about whether to recommend that a child see a therapist, how to access behavioral health care in the community, or how to talk to families about their child’s issues in a way that encourages openness to help. About a quarter of her calls are from non-nurses, including school counselors and principals. Love thinks the beauty of the program is that schools can use it as much or as little as they’d like. “Some schools never call, but others have told me that it’s reassuring to them to know that they can. Other schools seem to have me on speed dial.”
Emily Collins, a nurse at Carney Academy, an elementary school in New Bedford, Massachusetts, said Love has been an exceptional support to her and her school. “Julie is always available for my questions and concerns about mental health issues and provides valuable information and suggestions for interventions based on what is best for the student,” said Collins. “Her suggestions include non-medical and medical strategies that are applicable in school as well as at home for the parents.”
Collins also added, “I have also had several physicians contact Julie for assistance with the medical component of a student’s case.”
Eager to continue the program, McLean welcomes new sources of philanthropy. Contact Jeff Smith at 617.855.4597 or to make a gift in support of this project.