Omaha Catholic schools try mental health program

Students greet Bo, the therapy dog, Jan. 10 at St. James/Seton School in Omaha. As a therapy dog, he brings joy and stress relief to students every Wednesday. (CNS photo/Mike May, Catholic Voice)

OMAHA, Neb. (CNS) -- Catholic schools in the Omaha Archdiocese are taking seriously the problems of student anxiety, depression and other mental health issues.

One effort to help is a pilot program providing counseling to students at six Omaha-area Catholic schools.

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Through a partnership with archdiocesan schools, Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Omaha is supplying a licensed mental health therapist to provide direct therapy services at each school one half-day per week, said Theresa Swoboda, clinical nurse manager and coordinator of the program.

"Our intent was to begin this for the second semester, but there was so much need expressed by the schools, that we began in October. Anxiety is the number one problem," Swoboda told the Catholic Voice, Omaha's archdiocesan newspaper.

In addition to the demands of school, students may struggle with family problems or divorce, and the impact of increased social media activity.

"Since 2008, the youth suicide rate has continued to increase, correlating pretty closely with the increasing availability of smartphones and social media," she said.

An on-site therapist eliminates barriers to access and makes available the specialized counseling that school counselors are unable to provide.

"Research shows that students' mental health, social and emotional balance, and academic performance improve if you can go to the kids in their own environment," Swoboda said. "And students don't have to leave school to see a therapist."

Catholic Charities also has now begun an outreach to rural schools through a tele-health option with online resources, she said.

Swoboda said Catholic Charities hopes to obtain funding to expand the program, making it available to any Catholic school in the archdiocese that requests it.

Schools involved in the pilot program are St. Mary in Bellevue, and Ss. Peter and Paul, St. Vincent de Paul, Mary Our Queen, Roncalli Catholic High School and Duchesne Academy of the Sacred Heart, all in Omaha.

In addition to the counseling services, Duchesne Academy makes mental and physical health information part of the curriculum through healthy living classes, said Laura Hickman, principal.

"We want to provide (students with) deeper education on what a healthy lifestyle looks like, signs of depression in themselves and their peers and ways to deal with anxiety," she said.

The school also created a Facebook page to inform parents about youth mental health issues and foster an exchange of information.

Duchesne also helps students find time for quiet reflection through prayer services and guided meditation during classes, and is considering small-group sessions with adult moderators, Hickman said.

"For students to learn, their basic needs have to be met, but when we have students dealing with debilitating anxiety, depression or other emotions they don't know how to express, learning becomes difficult," she said.

"Everything we can do as a school to help students feel healthy and in control of their emotions makes a difference."

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Justin Cook
7 months 1 week ago

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