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Colorado school counselors focus on special needs students' mental health

May is Mental Health Month
Posted at 4:35 PM, May 20, 2020
and last updated 2020-05-20 18:35:30-04

DOUGLAS COUNTY, Colo. — For Bella Kirshner, the hardest part of being at home for the last nine weeks has been the isolation.

“I can’t have a friend over. That’s hard, and I want to hug people,” said the 20-year-old. Kirshner has developmental disabilities and is a student in the Douglas County School District's Transition Bridge program.

Counselors in the program say students with special needs are experiencing the same mental health concerns that many people are experiencing amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.

“They’re anxious about what’s going on in the world today. They’re worried about their parents getting sick, (and) they’re missing all their structure and community,” said Pamela Highfill, a social worker and teacher in the Bridge program.

Students in the Bridge program are not able to meet in person with their counselors right now, but are doing one-on-one sessions and group meetings on Zoom. Highfill says one of the most important aspects of the virtual sessions is allowing the students time to talk to each other so they stay connected to their peers.

This month, coinciding with Mental Health Month, the Metro Denver Partnership for Health relaunched the Let’s Talk Colorado campaign. The campaign encourages people to speak up about their mental health needs, and reach out to others.

Several community partners, including Douglas County School District, are providing services virtually during the pandemic.

DCSD Mental Health Director Stephanie Crawford-Goetz said her team was surprised to find some benefits of the online services.

“They’re getting to see their students’ rooms and their favorite toys, so it’s been fun for the students to connect and show off a little more about themselves,” said Crawford-Goetz.

The virtual services allow high-risk groups like special needs students to stay home while staying connected. Kirshner says she’s been able to learn some tactics, like taking walks, to help cope with the loneliness and stress she experiences. She is grateful for the continued support, including a drive-by birthday parade that friends arranged for her 20th birthday earlier this month.

“Forty people came, and all my friends came and supported me,” said Kirshner.