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Wirt County Schools Pilot Trauma-Informed Mental Health Project

Wirt County is employing many tactics to try to cultivate a more compassionate, learning-ready environment; among them: the Whole Child Health Project.
Glynis Board
West Virginia Public Broadcasting
Wirt County is employing many tactics to try to cultivate a more compassionate, learning-ready environment; among them: the Whole Child Health Project.

The state faces complex ripple effects as a result of the opioid crisis. Among them, educators anecdotally report suspension rate increases in kindergarten classes, and a generation of babies born dependent on substances now being introduced to Head Start programs throughout the region.

Public school teachers and staff staged a statewide walk-in earlier this year to bring attention to what they say is a dire need for in-school mental health support. Many counties have already mobilized efforts to support students and help teachers who are not trained to cope with the increased number of traumatized youths disrupting the learning environment, including Wirt County.

Wirt County Primary Center, Elizabeth, West Virginia

“I love how Ben is paying attention,” Jamie Vannoy told her kindergarten class one recent afternoon. “He’s sitting up in his chair and he’s being quiet and looking right at me.”

Jamie Vannoy has been teaching kindergarten class here for seven years. She’s having to learn how to cope with disruptive students who appear to have underdeveloped emotional coping mechanisms -- a classic symptom of trauma.

“I see a lot more students coming to us dealing with trauma -- things that I could not even begin to imagine that they're dealing with at home,” Vannoy said. “Those things have to be addressed first before I can really fully do my job.”

She's not alone. The West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources, and the West Virginia United Caucus describe similar stories, including accounts of housing insecurity. According to Wirt County Schools superintendent Mary Jane Pope Albin, 14.6 percent of the student body in her county is considered homeless by federal standards.

“Meaning they were living family groups, living with other families, living with grandparents -- living outside of a traditional home,” Albin said.

Wirt Elementary principal Melissa Emerson explained that trauma can affect brain development, and as a result, students might have difficulty understanding fundamental concepts like cause and effect.

“You're supposed to teach ‘cause and effect,’ ‘compare and contrast,’ -- all of these things. But if you don't live that, it’s not a concrete notion in your life, how do you teach that through a story?” Emerson asked. “[Trauma] changes how we teach, it changes how we do intervention, it changes how we approach everything.”

Credit Glynis Board / West Virginia Public Broadcasting
Wirt County's elementary school has been a regular home to supportive counselors - master's-level students getting a degree in therapy or social work.

Educators are rarely experts in behavioral health, though. To adapt, Wirt County applied for and received a $50,000 grant last year from Sisters Health Foundation to fund implementation of a pilot mental health intervention called the Whole Child Health Project.

The grant pays for a partnership venture with the nonprofit Harmony Mental Health.

“You either deal with trauma or trauma deals with you,” founder and CEO of Harmony Felisha Bush said. “When it deals with you throughout your lifespan, it impacts everything. It impacts society. We want to mitigate that as early as possible and help people change the trajectory of their lives so that they can live the life of their choosing. Not not some default that was chosen for them.”

Bush was among the founders of the state’s Handle with Care initiative, which has worked to implement best-practice coping strategies in schools where students are dealing with a lot of trauma.

The Whole Child Health Project

Bush created a pilot program tailored to the needs of Wirt County designed to support kids, health professionals, teachers, school staff, and also graduate students pursuing degrees in social work or therapy. Harmony couples licensed health professionals with master’s-level students in schools. Bush says this model will help a new generation of therapists gain practical, paid experience providing trauma-informed care.

Credit Glynis Board / West Virginia Public Broadcasting
Tyler Davis is working toward his master's degree in social work through Concord University. He meets with students three days a week at Wirt Primary Center in Elizabeth, West Virginia.

Tyler Davis is one such student. He's pursuing a master’s degree in social work online through Concord University. He and another masters-level student work here three days a week as “supportive counselors.” They have an office in the school library.

Credit Glynis Board / West Virginia Public Broadcasting
A corner of the tidy space has a hidey spot for kids who need a momentary escape, and games that help identify emotions and life-coping strategies.

“We have pictures and activities and games and fun seating and a small table for working with little kids and color and stuff, and paint and all that kind of stuff. Kids love the room. We love it, too,” Davis said.


Davis keeps a flexible schedule with kids who are signed up to receive therapy, and also kids who slip through official channels but demonstrate a need for extra attention. As a so-called “supportive counselor,” Davis’s role is largely to be there for kids who become dysregulated. He also works with teachers and school counselors offering expertise in helping kids who struggle with trauma. And he gets to work with parents, too.

“It brings all aspects of their life together. looking at the child as the whole child and not just, you know, the school child and not just the client,” Davis said.

Superintendent Albin explains that the program provides families access to mental health services that would otherwise not be accessible to the community.

Harmony Mental Health has also provided trauma-informed training to all teachers and staff, as well as a “teacher decompression station.”

“We have a massage chair for them to release that muscular tension that they might be experiencing, aroma therapy, a foot massage, a hand massage, a sound machine they can plug their earphones into so they can just reset,” Harmony CEO Felisha Bush said. “Then they're better able to go back and face what they're facing because what they're facing is challenging.”

A Sustained Effort

Wirt County is applying for additional grants to continue to program next year, but Superintendent Albin hopes legislation will be passed to increase access and funding for mental health services in schools.

“I am really hoping that our sustainability will be a natural sustainability through state funding,” Albin said.

Superintendent Albin says it's too early to draw conclusions, but she's optimistic. She says academic academic achievement has improved this year and that they’ve seen fewer disciplinary actions. Albin says these and other data will be collected and analyzed to monitor progress of this and other actions the county is implementing.

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