The Missing Link: Mental Health Experts Connect Students with Resources

An older man in a white shirt comforts a child in a green shirt As mother of a 7-year-old daughter with mental illness, Andrea has been in contact with her share of therapists and psychiatrists to get her child the care she needs. She said there’s only one person she’s truly relying on to help her daughter Zoe through the pandemic.

“I don’t feel like there’s anyone I can turn to who understands except for Lori,” said Andrea (both her name and Zoe’s have been changed to protect her privacy). “She dropped everything to help me out when we were dealing with an especially hard morning last weekend and had to take her to the hospital.”

Lori Altrudo is a behavior health liaison with the Maximizing Adolescent Potentials (MAPS) Program at the University of Pittsburgh. During the academic year, Altrudo is embedded in K-12 schools within two local districts in the Pittsburgh area, where she meets with students are who are showing behavior that may get in the way of their academic success, such as repeatedly missing class or not completing their assignments. Altrudo links them with resources to get the help they need.

“For students showing these red flags, it could mean they have anxiety or depression, or another serious problem with their mental health,” said Altrudo. “After we do a screening, I help the families connect with outside services and help the school come up with a plan.”

After Zoe’s initial screening a few months ago, Altrudo recommended family-based therapy, and she continues to stay in touch with Andrea during the pandemic. “I’m technically on-call right now. The kids and their parents need me now more than ever,” Altrudo said.

“Lori is checking on me and my daughter almost every day. Sometimes, we talk several times a day,” said Andrea. “She’s given me the confidence to take the next steps with my daughter to get her help.”

‘MAPS is not stopping’

MAPS, which is housed in Pitt’s School of Education, has a total of 10 staff that serve six school districts in the Pittsburgh area, including Pittsburgh Public Schools.

And they’ve been busy—well before the pandemic. According to Jennifer Ely, program director of MAPS, their behavioral health liaisons have screened 330 students since the start of the 2019-2020 school year. Of those students, Ely said the liaisons have recommended all students receive some level of in-school support either with their liaison, case manager or adult in the building. Between 60 and 70% of the students referred to outpatient therapy accessed the appropriate services, she said.

And when schools shut down across the country due to the pandemic, Ely said it was important that the team quickly figure out how to continue helping their students.

“This is a big shift for the students. Some of them are struggling with motivation and staying engaged academically,” said Ely. “And being socially isolated can cause relapse and inhibit recovery.”

“It’s important for kids my age to have an outside source to talk to,” said a local ninth grade student who works with one of the MAPS behavior health liaisons. “Even when I don’t have something major to get off of my chest during a session, I always feel better after talking to her. I know I can trust her and she gives me good advice. I’m glad we’ve had our phone calls during our time off from school, too, keeping that contact going.” 

When it all started, I just didn’t want to miss a beat. I reached out to my families and let them know that MAPS is not stopping.

Bevin Kovalik

In addition to conducting screenings, MAPS behavioral health liaisons and drug and alcohol prevention specialists lead programming and educational groups across the county on topics including cyber bullying awareness and resiliency, suicide prevention awareness and life skills training. Ely said that the team is looking into creating webinars to take the place of in-person trainings while stay-at-home orders are in place.

During this time at home, they have shared content on social media for their families full of coping tips and best practices for staying well, mentally.

Bevin Kovalik, a MAPS behavior health liaison who serves students in Fox Chapel, North Allegheny and Hampton Township school districts, said she immediately reached out to her students’ families when the schools shut down.

“When it all started, I just didn’t want to miss a beat,” said Kovalik. “I reached out to my families and let them know that MAPS is not stopping.”

Kovalik said that since the school closures, she’s conducted three screenings via Zoom and continues to get referrals for new students. She also said she’s successfully linked students with therapists via telehealth during the pandemic.

“I was uncertain going into the new structure, but the Zoom screenings have been pretty seamless,” said Kovalik. “The benefit of doing it on Zoom, for me, is that the parents come on camera in the beginning and we have a little face-to-face chat. These virtual meetings and conversations look a little different during COVID, but I’ve been pleased with how they’re going.”  

Cara Kelly, MAPS behavior health liaison for Highlands and North Allegheny School Districts, said she still meets regularly with her schools’ Student Assistance Program (SAP) teams—which are composed of teachers, school counselors and principals. In the meetings, now held over Zoom, the team identifies students who may going through a hard time and may be in need of assistance.

“Right now, we’re checking in on SAP students who are having a difficult time completing their schoolwork,” said Kelly. “A member of the SAP team may point out that a student is not turning in assignments or when they spoke with them or their parent, something didn’t sound right; those are the students we reach out to, to check in and see if they need any support.”

“Cara continues to participate in our SAP meetings and provide guidance in these unchartered times. She has worked with our teams in coordinating communication and support for families,” said Micalla Mikus, school psychologist at Highlands School District. “She has not missed a beat and we could not be more grateful.”

As many families during the pandemic, Ely said she’s even more concerned about when things return to normal. “We know we are going to be busy when we go back,” she said.

And while Ely said she hasn’t noticed a definitive trend in which specific types of resources students need during the pandemic, she noted something she is seeing a lot of: gratitude.  

“We’re seeing appreciation from the students that we can still be there for them. They’re embracing the opportunity to stay connected, and that we care for and are here for them,” Ely said.

“It’s about building a rapport with students. I never force a student to open up and tell me things, or even to meet with me. It is always their choice,” said Kelly. “We let them know we are here to support them, that we are sincere and we care about their well-being.”