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More than 3,000 Whidbey Island kids seek mental health help

Kierra Richard, in the middle, and Jhonas Burke work on a project while talking with Andrea Thomas, a school-based counselor at the Oak Harbor High School. They normally meet with her one-on-one, but stopped by for an informal talk at the end of school year. - Jessie Stensland/Whidbey News-Times
Kierra Richard, in the middle, and Jhonas Burke work on a project while talking with Andrea Thomas, a school-based counselor at the Oak Harbor High School. They normally meet with her one-on-one, but stopped by for an informal talk at the end of school year.
— image credit: Jessie Stensland/Whidbey News-Times

Jhonas Burke went through misery that’s shockingly common for teenagers on happy Whidbey Island and elsewhere across the nation.

He was so depressed that there were times when he wanted to die. He felt like an outcast, an outsider. Thoughts ran like a freight train through his head, but he had no one to share them with. He’s a smart kid, but he was falling behind in classes at Oak Harbor High School.

Then two years ago Burke experienced a turning point. He went to see Andrea Thomas, a school-based counselor who has an office at the school. He discovered that she was a nonjudgmental, attentive listener.

“You were my rock. You were someone I could talk to,” Burke told the counselor at farewell visit just after graduation.

Nowadays, Burke is positively effervescent. The once-morose teenager gave a speech about the harm of bullying during a special Martin Luther King Day assembly at the school. He studied hard and graduated with the rest of his class. He even has an IT job waiting for him.

“He’s definitely a success story,” Thomas said. “He’s one of those kids who comes from one place and makes it to another. It’s been great watching him grow.”

Yet Burke is just one of many success stories and stories-in-the-making thanks to the distinctive program provided by Island County government. The county provides six full-time and a half-time counselors to the four school districts in the county under a program funded largely by the one-tenth of 1 percent mental health sales tax that county commissioners adopted in 2007. The program costs about $350,000 a year.

The program is under the umbrella of county’s Human Services department, headed by Director Jackie Henderson. She explained that after the tax was passed, a task force created a list at all the needs in the community; a school-based counseling program “always rose to the top.”

Educators, health care providers, law-and-justice officials all agreed the need is vital. Charlene Ray, a coordinator of the counseling program and a counselor on South Whidbey, said the average resident would probably be shocked to learn of the myriad of problems facing kids of all ages in Island County. There are kids who are grieving the loss of family members, dealing with the military  deployment of one or both parents, addicted to pills, dealing with eating disorders, depressed or filled with anxiety, homeless or neglected or abused, and on and on.

“I never cease to be surprised by the number of students who experience mental illness in their families or drug and alcohol abuse in their families. Just the amount of problems in families is an eye opener,” Ray said. “And the economy just adds another level of stress.”

Ray explained that the county provides counselors — professionals with degrees in counseling or social work — in Oak Harbor, Coupeville, South Whidbey and at a Camano Island school. The schools have their own “school counselors,” but they are mainly dedicated to academic issues and don’t offer therapy.

The statistics are astounding. In the 2009/2010 school year, a total of 3,054 students from the four school districts received individual counseling. More than 220 kids received crisis intervention, according to Island County Human Services.

Rick Schulte, superintendent of Oak Harbor schools, said his principals reported that the counselors have made a big difference in their schools.

“The difference between having them and not having them is obvious to the principals,” he said. “They fill a need for services that students would not otherwise receive.”

Likewise, Ray pointed out that kids dealing with mental health issues learn better if they get help.

“Teachers are able to teach in their classrooms because we’ve dealt with an issue,” she said.

Ray explained that the program is really an ongoing collaboration between the county and the school districts. A team of counselors, school officials and human services officials work together to set up the counseling services in a way that they feel best fit each district.

In Coupeville, Raven Jirikovic provides counseling in the comfort of a former classroom that’s been outfitted with couches and recliners. It’s an informal environment. She offers students herbal tea. When the door is open, kids pop their heads in to say hi.

“It’s really important for kids to be relaxed so they can be whoever they need to be,” she said.

Like the other districts, Jirikovic offers one-on-one counseling, family counseling and groups that tackle issues like poor self esteem.

But even in the calm Coupeville atmosphere, many teenagers are dealing with big issues. Jirikovic said she’s helped kids addicted to meth, girls in abusive relationships, victims of cyber bullying and a whole lot of stressed-out kids.

“Kids feel an enormous amount of stress,” she said.

Similarly, Jirikovic said the key to being effective in her job is to build relationships and trust with the students. It’s a lesson that she tries to pass on to parents.

“I’ve had kids tell me they’ve never had someone just sit there and not lecture them,” she said.

In fact, parents — or the lack of parents — is at the heart of many problems. A lot of kids simply want or need more attention from their parents. But on the extreme side, some parents are incapable of parenting because of their own mental illness or drug or alcohol problems.

“Some of my kids have parents who let them do anything and I mean anything,” she said. “It’s a mind blower.”

At Oak Harbor High School, Thomas has a more traditional kind of office with a desk and table, but the kids are no less comfortable talking with her.

In the past year, Thomas has helped students deal with a wide range of issues, including self-cutting, anger, depression and drug abuse. She said there seems to be more pills available to kids than ever.

“We definitely need a group home in this community,” she said. “There’s a lot of homeless kids. Most of them couch surf between friends. There’s a lot of discord in families.”

With school out, the counselors aren’t working over the summer, but are getting ready for another busy school year. Thomas is looking forward to another year of working with kids like Kierra Richard, who’s moving into her senior year of high school.

Richard is a creative kid with a dry, irreverent sense of humor. But up until recently, she simply didn’t talk to anyone. She kept silent, but expressed her anger and loneliness in violence. As she explained it, she “beat up other kids.” She would leave class without any explanation.

But like Burke, she experienced a turnaround after seeing Thomas. It took a lot of hard work. For nearly a year, Richard didn’t really communicate with the counselor at all. And then one day she came in on her own and made an announcement.

“I’m ready to talk.”

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