New school worker speaks up for kids' mental health

  • Article by: MARIA ELENA BACA , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 25, 2012 - 3:58 PM

Anoka-Hennepin school district hires a new administrator to bring mental health issues to the table.

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Nita Kumar, Anoka-Hennepin School District’s mental health consultant

Photo: Maria Elena Baca, Star Tribune

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Pressure to achieve. Economic uncertainty now and in the future. Drama from family and friends. It's no wonder that students are stressed.

"I do think these are more stressful times for kids," said Nita Kumar, who started last week as the Anoka-Hennepin School District's mental health consultant. "There's more competition, there's more that they have to do to get ready to be successful adults and independent adults. But they're definitely not without support."

Kumar will monitor the district's policies and procedures around mental health. She will work with students, parents and school and district staff to ensure that mental health issues are put into the correct context, in interactions with students and families, and as the district considers policies and programs.

The position was one of two required as part of the settlement with two federal departments that ended six students' lawsuits against Anoka-Hennepin earlier this year; their contention was that the district did not adequately respond to their complaints of bullying and harassment based on sexual orientation. Kumar also will report back to the Justice Department on the district's prevention and intervention work with students who are at risk of harming themselves.

The position isn't about bullying, but she says that mental health plays a role, for both the targets and perpetrators of the behavior.

Her hire also comes a couple of years after a rash of suicides in the district. Between September 2009 and May 2011, seven Anoka-Hennepin students took their lives. In the years since, the district has strengthened its counseling staff and worked to make sure kids know there is help for them.

"We've put a magnifying glass on this issue," Kumar said. "Clearly, if someone is taking their own life, something was missed. I don't know if it was missed at school, at home, in society. In an environment where there are so many resources available, kids shouldn't be taking their own lives."

Kumar, 39, is a licensed marriage and family therapist who has worked in corporate and school settings. She has worked directly with young people, and with institutions that serve them, health-care companies, mental health providers and schools. In her new role, she will be a liaison between district staff and community providers.

Mental health awareness

There's been a growing recognition of the need for mental health services at school, said Jinger Gustafson, associate superintendent for middle schools, who will supervise Kumar.

"Overall, there's just been a growing need for those mental health services," she said. "I think we still have a ways to go, but I think with the challenges and the struggles that people are facing, that students are facing, that it's getting to a point where it's OK to talk about this now, because people are looking for support and resources and ideas of what to do. It's been an undercurrent, but just recently, over the last few years, it's become more of a public conversation, rather than a conversation just within the home."

Kumar expects to work closely with the district's new Title IX coordinator, Jennifer Cherry, as well as Prevention Coordinator Barry Scanlan and Greg Cole, principal of the Compass Programs. She'll also provide training and consulting for school-based professionals. She doesn't rule out the possibility of working directly with students experiencing mental health needs, but she'll spend most of her time with others, helping peers, parents and staff to identify kids in crisis.

"I plan to work with staff, educating them on the different risk factors, being able to identify this kid here, who used to come to school bubbly and fresh, and now is withdrawn and putting his head down," she said. "The first thing that attracted me to this role was that there were kids who for whatever reason were not identified as somebody who needed support. I don't know if they weren't reporting things, or because people didn't pick up on their mental health issues. We want to create an environment where kids do feel comfortable to speak up."

She expects the role to pose challenges, not the least of which will be advocating for mental health resources at school.

"I don't know a single person who would say let's not take care of our children's health," she said. "I really anticipate that people are going to fully support helping out kids and their health care. This is a separate component of their health care. If we're going to treat diabetes, let's treat depression. If we're going to treat migraines, let's treat anxiety."

Maria Elena Baca • 612-673-4409

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