ELDON — The Cardinal Community School District's mental health program began three years ago as essentially a bare-bones operation, nowhere near the level it needed to be to meet the demands it would soon face.

Today, it is a well-oiled machine, with many critical pieces, at a time when mental health is one of the biggest challenges the school faces.

The school district has always prioritized mental health for students and families, but the COVID-19 pandemic has only maximized that effort. Though the school has had 100% face-to-face learning since the school year started in August, that hasn't really lessened the task. There are still students the school does not see every day because of the virtual learning option.

"We're seeing a lot of anxiety and separation anxiety cases like we'd anticipated, and the numbers we're seeing are probably a little higher than we thought they'd be. Currently, we have 130 students going to a counselor," said Michelle Edwards, secondary guidance counselor at the school. "We're just trying to be visible and making the community aware of the services we provide and how important we think they are, because post-pandemic, I think we're still going to see high anxiety with students.

"I do think the kids have adjusted better than we anticipated to the new policies we have here," she said. "We've really tried to meet the student where they're at."

Cardinal offers a variety of services, including family therapy, medication management referrals, one-to-one visits with therapists and small group sessions among them.

"We want to help the whole child," Edwards said. "The whole family."

Superintendent Joel Pedersen has commended his staff for creating an environment that can deal with emotional issues effectively. The school has Edwards, and Abbey Shelman is an elementary counselor who splits time between Cardinal and Pekin, and Aimee Sivak, the at-risk coordinator at the school.

But it's the partnerships that have allowed the program to thrive. The school also works with Great Prairie AEA, Southern Iowa Mental Health Center and River Hills Community Health Center, among others, to form a cohesive group with plenty to offer.

"I'm just so proud of the work we've done. We want to decrease the stigma of mental health and allow people to talk about it freely. In some ways, I think we've shown a spotlight on that," Pedersen said. "We believe that if kids aren't healthy mentally, then it's going to be tough to be at a high level in math or reading, etc. We want them to know it's OK to talk to us."

The school allocates part of its budget and devotes state resources to mental health, but also serves as a model for other school districts, especially in rural communities that can be hard to reach. Because Cardinal shares a counselor with Pekin, and has forged those partnerships with therapists, social workers and other organizations, Cardinal's mental health program is robust.

"We couldn't do it without our partnerships because they believe in our mission," Pedersen said. "In a perfect world we'd have services on site. Instead of sending someone straight to detention or suspension, maybe they need to see a mental health professional and get to the root of the problem, especially if parents ask us for that support, because we also ask what we can do to help our families.

"Teachers identify a concern, and sometimes it takes the whole team to see someone struggle," Pedersen said. "We can be like a triage team then."

Edwards comes from a mental health background, saying, "Counseling is my true passion in life." So putting those skills on the front burner at the school was one of her main goals.

"Before, it was me, Joel and River Hills, just trying to get something built up," she said. "This is year two of really getting a formal team that's worked together. We meet probably bi-weekly to review our caseloads, discuss the barriers we're having getting paperwork back from families."

"Michelle did a lot of the initial legwork. She gets all the credit," Pedersen said. "She was relentless, and basically said, 'Joel, I think we can do better here.'

The outreach continues. Edwards said the school is in the beginning stages of setting up a mentorship program that allows high school and middle school students to mentor elementary students, and is also working on a district initiative to reduce the stigma of mental health.

"This has always been my end goal," Edwards said. "When I started at Cardinal, they really didn't have services, so getting the right people at the table and connecting well together, it's been really good for our kids and families."

Pedersen stressed the need for mental health in school districts.

"We can't ask our teachers to be mental health providers," he said. "Our students, staff and families have to go to people who are trained to this."

For families or staff who believe a student needs mental health intervention, the school has a referral form on its website at www.cardinalcomet.com.

— Chad Drury can be reached at cdrury@ottumwacourier.com, and on Twitter @ChadDrury

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