Health

Mercy, Linn-Mar partner to offer urgent mental health services to students

Partnership helps kids with anxiety, depression; referral service may expand

Libby Dunnigan

Mercy therapist
Libby Dunnigan Mercy therapist

CEDAR RAPIDS — A year-old partnership between Mercy Medical Center in Cedar Rapids and the Linn-Mar school district gives students greater access to mental health resources.

The program — now in its second year — offers students struggling with urgent mental health problems immediate, free access to the hospital’s counseling services.

Typically, students who experience depression or anxiety and are having suicidal thoughts or self-harming habits have to wait two to three months to get in to see a counselor.

Under the partnership, school counselors can recommend students to Mercy therapist Libby Dunnigan, who will see the student within two to three days.

“A lot of parents don’t know what steps to take” when their child is struggling, said Mike Shipley, a student assistance specialist at Excelsior Middle School. “And then they’ll try to make an appointment and are told of the wait ... it can be a defeating feeling. And going to the hospital can be a scary step to take and maybe not always appropriate.”

The student and his or her family receive three free sessions with Dunnigan.

“Kids and teens are very impulsive,” Dunnigan said. “You need to de-escalate (the problem) as soon as possible. ... We want to give them tools to self-soothe themselves.”

During the initial year of the program, Dunnigan said she worked with about 50 students from elementary school through high school — though most of the students she saw were 12 or 13 years old. This year, she’s on track to outpace that number.

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Often kids are struggling with peer relationships, Dunnigan and Shipley said. They spend most of their time at school, so problems with friends can feel amplified. That, combined with academic pressures or family issues, can lead to problems.

“They can feel isolated by people at school. To them, today is forever. They need support and have their feelings validated,” she said.

During the three free sessions — which are paid for by the Mercy Foundation — Dunnigan works with the kids and their families on positive coping techniques so they can deal better with stress and be more self-sufficient.

“Most kids lack the skill set to deal with these struggles alone,” Shipley said.

It appears to be working. About 80 percent of students reported a moderate to significant decrease in anxiety, while 75 percent reported a decrease in depressive symptoms. Those still struggling are able to schedule additional counseling sessions.

Mercy is now working with other area school districts to expand the program.

“This has really become a necessity for us,” Shipley said. “Kids and parents are really benefiting from it.”

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