Returning to school after being hospitalized for mental-health issues can be stressful.
“It’s helpful to have an advocate to help you transfer your new coping skills,” says Megan Sayre, a high school social worker.
Alexian Brothers Behavioral Health Hospital (ABBHH) in Hoffman Estates, Ill., eases the transition by assigning a school liaison to every school-age patient. The liaison collaborates with the student’s school during and after treatment, meeting at school with the student, his or her parents and school representatives when the student is ready to return.
“That’s a step beyond,” Sayre says of the School Liaison Program, which helps about 2,000 students annually. Of the schools in the program, 98% report that it meets the needs of the student/patient and the school.
Other hospitals, Sayre says, typically handle the back-to-school transition with a conference call involving her, the patient and the patient’s parents and doctor and/or therapist. “It’s not the same as having the school liaison here,” she says.
Meeting at school with the school liaison, the student/patient and his or her parents allows school representatives to see how the school liaison and student/patient work together and how the student/patient interacts with his or her parents, Sayre says. The school liaison also can prompt the student/patient to ask questions and can seek specific types of support from the school based on the school liaison’s familiarity with the student/patient’s needs.
Collaboration with the school liaison begins while the student/patient is in the hospital, with the school liaison keeping school officials informed about the student/patient’s progress and estimated discharge date. The communication continues after the student/patient returns to school, says Sayre, adding that the program is “very helpful” in ensuring a successful transition.
“Communication between the hospital and school is very important, because the student needs as much consistency as possible to avoid a relapse, to keep them successful academically and to help them readjust socially,” Sayre says. The school liaison, she adds, “is our point of contact, so we don’t have to call eight different individuals at the hospital. We can just call the school liaison if we have questions about the student’s discharge, academics, treatment or anything.”
The most common causes of psychiatric hospitalization among students with whom she works are anxiety disorders, depression, drug and/or alcohol abuse, and suicidal thoughts, Sayre says. She has seen an increase in students with school anxiety/school refusal disorder, in which students avoid or refuse to attend school because of anxiety and/or depression. “We have sent lots of students to Alexian Brothers for that reason,” she says. ABBHH’s School Anxiety/School Refusal Program “allows students and families to identify how to get out of that cycle,” Sayre says. Of the students who have completed treatment in the program, 94% have returned to school successfully.
Students receiving psychiatric treatment can be hospitalized for a few days or several weeks, depending on the severity of their condition, Sayre says. Returning to school after leaving the hospital “is usually a very stressful time for students because they’re behind academically, have to negotiate all their new coping skills and use them in real life rather than in the hospital setting…and they don’t know what to say to teachers and friends about why they were missing for several weeks,” Sayre says.
The ABBHH school liaison, she adds, works with the student/patient, practicing how to respond to questions regarding his or her absence and how to ask for help when he or she needs it. The school liaison also works with the school to help the student/patient transition back to school at his or her own pace. “The student doesn’t go straight from being hospitalized to being a full-time student,” she says. “They usually transition back slowly.”
A student/patient, for example, initially might attend school only during the morning or afternoon, or might alternate days between school and the hospital’s day program. “That way, they can come here, be in a new situation, and then talk to their treatment team at the hospital about their concerns and not be completely lost,” Sayre says.
ABBHH employs four full-time school liaisons as part of it education department, says Steve Hunter, ABBHH Clinical Liaison for Child and Adolescent Services and Clinical Director of the hospital’s Center for Professional Development. The department also includes five full-time teachers, who coordinate with the school liaisons and work with student/patients to help them keep pace as much as possible with their class work.
The education department “is devoted to ensuring that students are educated while they’re in treatment, that they get back to school and that they get the appropriate help when they return,” Hunter says.
Meanwhile, the hospital’s Center for Professional Development provides training on mental-health issues at no cost for staff members at area schools. The center conducts 100 to 125 free training events in schools each year, focusing on topics such as anxiety disorders, school avoidance and refusal, and parenting issues, Hunter says.
The center also conducts about 75 training events annually for staff members at community mental-health centers, social services agencies and hospitals that don’t offer psychiatric services. “We do training for 12,000 to 15,000 people a year pro bono,” Hunter says.