By Aparajitha Suresh, CEI Intern
Having worked as a mental health provider for over three years, Ali Sumski is no stranger to finding compassion amidst burnout and fatigue. Sumski works at Methuen High School, a public high school located in a gateway city. Here, the student body features a higher than average percentage of students who have experienced trauma, housing insecurity, abuse, and/or neglect at home, resulting in a heavy and mentally taxing workload for school counselors. But despite her initial inexperience in situations of intense trauma, Sumski became “hungry for experiences to do her job better” and joined the Childhood-Trauma Learning Collaborative (C-TLC) to acquire the network and skills necessary to better provide to the students under her care.
Helping Struggling Students Through The Bridge Program
In the past three years, Sumski has accomplished a lot. Most notably, she brought the BRYT Bridge Program to Methuen High School. The Bridge Program helps students return to school after extended absence (typically due to mental or physical health issues) by scaffolding attendance, and working with teachers, families, and outside providers to ensure that students can quickly and efficiently get back on track.
Unfortunately, the Bridge Program, which was “about getting kids into the physical building” has been difficult to maintain at its original scale in the midst of COVID-19 restrictions and remote learning. In past years, Sumski would work intensely with anywhere from 5-15 students in the program, providing intensive counseling, academic support, and family engagement. The unique challenges that the 2020-21 school year presented led Sumski to advocate for a slight pivot in her role in order to serve more students. She now embodies the role of a traditional school counselor for about 80 students (reduced from her colleagues’ ~240-student caseloads) in addition to supporting the Bridge program and meeting with former Bridge students for weekly counseling. Through this reduced caseload and weekly meetings, Sumski has fostered strong relationships with these students and has successfully helped them maintain regular attendance, even during these trying times.
The Importance of Universal Mental Health Screening
In a traditional year at Methuen High, counselors administer universal mental health screening every 3-4 weeks to the entire student body, measuring for symptoms indicating risk for depression, suicidality, anxiety, and trauma. This regular screening practice allows counselors to identify those students who may be struggling with their mental health, and help get them the required support. These screeners are particularly useful, as they provide counselors with multiple data points for every student, and thus allow them to make well-informed and targeted decisions for each student, and for the school as a whole.
While maintaining these screeners has proven difficult over the past year, with even basic education sometimes getting lost amidst pandemic issues, Sumski and her colleagues have managed to ensure that regular screening still continues for students who are most in need. Counselors have strategized to administer screeners in small batches to ensure that the appropriate follow-up and safety plans can be conducted when needed. In addition to these department-wide screenings, Sumski utilizes the same measures biweekly to the students that she sees for counseling each week in order to monitor their progress in targeted symptom presentation. Additionally, Sumski has incorporated a COVID-19 specific screener this year, to catch students who are particularly impacted by the isolating effects of the pandemic.
Methuen High School is fortunate to be in a district that cares deeply about comprehensive mental health support systems and has worked for years to be able to maintain enough mental health staff to universally screen students and follow up with each student identified in those screeners. Read more about our trauma-informed recommendations for mental health screening.
Maintaining Compassion as a Buffer Against Burnout
Though Sumski has (and continues to) accomplish so much, she wants to emphasize that she definitely does not have it all figured out, nor does she know anyone who does. “To be a mental health provider is emotionally exhausting, especially in schools.” But she has managed to maintain her compassion and drive by also prioritizing herself and self-care. Specifically, she mentions going to therapy as an important and vital source of rejuvenation amidst all the trauma that comprises her professional life.
Sumski believes these radical acts of self-care are important for her well-being, and better equip her to serve her students. “I need to be in my best shape to help my students. The work we do is important: we are preventing things. If a kid is in outpatient or seeing a therapist—it’s too late, the crisis has already occurred. But we are the ones who do the prevention work, and we need to be in our best shape to do so.”
Being able to network and connect with other educators in the C-TLC experiencing similarly challenging careers has also helped Sumski keep herself accountable to regularly maintain her self-care practices and share them with others. Building community and connection is an important buffer against compassion fatigue and burnout.