Teen center calls, visits number in thousands

Herald Staff Writer

Teen Wellness Center staff in all four Dubois County high schools are able to connect with students about important personal issues that occur in and outside of school.

An annual report that Joyce Fleck — executive director of Tri-Cap, which operates the adolescent program — presented to the county commissioners this week shows that the four centers assessed 880 students and completed 2,453 follow-up visits with them during the 2011-12 school year. Of those students, 129 reported current family conflicts, 98 reported parental alcohol abuse and 312 reported that smoking occurred in their households.

Tri-Cap adolescent program coordinator Christine Vinson, who runs the Teen Wellness Centers at Jasper and Southridge high schools, said students who come into the centers for the first time are given a basic health assessment that asks about risk factors, including exposure to tobacco and alcohol or other drugs. The teen wellness counselors use that information to give advice about coping techniques.

Because school guidance counselors must spend much of their time advising students about academic affairs, it is important that the wellness staff taps into any personal home problems in students’ lives, Vinson said. Schools also have nurses on staff several days a week.

“A lot of time it is their family life that’s out of their control. We want to make sure that they are able to learn coping skills. They’re not going to be living with mom and dad forever,” she said, “but what can we do now to cope positively? We are able to offer more personal counseling time and follow-up services. We do fill that gap.”

Fleck agreed that the teen wellness services branch out much farther than just the typical issues, with 58 students coming in to discuss parental drug abuse and 77 reporting depression last school year.

“I can tell you firsthand, I’m a parent. It (the teen wellness program) is very necessary. I don’t know how a high school counselor can manage all this. We are more than happy to do it. We’d give more if we could,” she said. “You think we’re just dealing with school bullying? No.”

The number of students seen each year by the wellness centers is consistently around 900 with well more than 2,000 individual visits. Vinson added that she has not noticed any alarming spikes or drops in subjects that students bring to the counselors’ attention.

There have been some recent changes in the amount of substance abuse dealt with in the schools. According to a 2012 community report compiled for the Governor’s Commission for a Drug-Free Indiana, the 2010 teen wellness progress report showed that 12 percent of county students assessed reported abusing some kind of substance that year, considerably lower than the 40 percent reported in 2009; the number rose to about 30 percent again in 2011. Four percent of students reported using tobacco products within 30 days of the teen wellness risk assessment in 2010, compared to 8 percent in 2009. During the 2011-12 year, 57 students reported that they currently smoked, 14 reported chewing tobacco and 113 admitted to alcohol use.

While family conflicts and school-related anxiety are among the most frequent problems Vinson and fellow counselor Paige Mundy deal with daily — 227 students visited with worries about grades or bullying last year — more severe issues are handled differently.

Vinson said she tells each student that the discussions they have are confidential, except in the case of rape, abuse, pregnancy or suicidal thoughts. Those issues are immediately reported to the correct community organizations. Last year, the centers dealt with seven cases of physical or sexual abuse, 12 unintended pregnancies and 40 suicide risks. When students choose to report one of these problems, Vinson knows they are serious about seeking help and works to follow up with them after their return to school.

“We are only in the schools three days per week or it probably would be even more students that we could get to,” Vinson said. Tri-Cap is required to match a state grant every year with local donations in order to continue its programming. “It’s just a safe nonjudgmental place.”

The commissioners declared May as Community Action Month in the county at Fleck’s request. She said she approached the group with the statistics for the first time this year in order to share the wellness centers’ news and possibly secure more matching funds for the Tri-Cap grant.

“We do all we can to get the money here to help our community,” Fleck said. “It just requires local community support or we can’t keep it going at this level.”

Contact Claire Moorman at cmoorman@dcherald.com.

More on DuboisCountyHerald.com