UTA strengthens commitment to Arlington ISD students in need of mental health services

Tuesday, Dec 13, 2016

The University of Texas at Arlington is renewing its partnership with the Arlington Independent School District to provide free treatment for students who show signs of disorders or mental health issues.

Guidance counselors who work for the school district refer students to the School of Social Work’s Center for Clinical Social Work director and professor Alexa Smith-Osborne.

Smith-Osborne and her staff of licensed clinical social workers, masters-level interns and externs diagnose, counsel and connect students with prescribers and local community mental health centers via a contract with the Arlington ISD.   

The counselors select the students, who along with their parents, agree to be seen at the Center for Clinical Social Work in 10 after-school sessions. Students range from pre-kindergarteners to high school seniors.

Center for Clinical Social Work referrals are made up of a mix of primary diagnoses. November referrals from the school district and community reveal that 19 percent of patients have attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, 19 percent have post-traumatic stress disorder, 19 percent have anxiety disorders and another 19 percent of patients meet the subthreshold for anxiety or depressive disorders.

Furthermore, 13 percent show signs of conduct disorder or early aggressiveness and 13 percent have major depressive disorders. 

“This collaboration with the UTA School of Social Work serves an important need for many of our students and families,” AISD Superintendent Dr. Marcelo Cavazos said. “Providing this opportunity for counseling is one step to improving the future of our students.”

In some cases, parents reach out to the district for help with their children. Parents attend every session, and often are counseled, too.

“We would hope we see people before the problems become serious,” Smith-Osborne said.

Disorders present in children are often co-morbid, they are linked to other conditions, she said. Smith-Osborne said research suggests individuals who receive treatment early on can avoid co-morbidity.

Common disorders students receive treatment for include: ADHD, oppositional defiant disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder and separation anxiety disorder.

ADHD is most prevalent among adolescents and can lead to oppositional defiant disorder, conduct disorder and substance abuse in adulthood, Smith-Osborne said.

“A national co-morbidity study estimates the population in America that is least likely to receive treatment is children,” she said.

A mix of community and school district patients with co-morbid diagnoses include: 13 percent with anxiety disorders, six percent with major depressive disorder and six percent enuresis – involuntary urination.

Studies show children are being diagnosed with autism, ADHD and bipolar disorders at increasing rates, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Smith-Osborne said though studies also point to the fact that perceived increases could be due to improved reporting and access to healthcare, trends indicate children need more help, regardless.

“Trends suggest that many more children need treatment and can benefit from earlier treatment to prevent/ameliorate the impact on their development,” Smith-Osborne said.

The center’s staff uses evidence-based interventions in a step-by-step process to provide treatments after the children are diagnosed following protocols of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

The DSM-5, which is published by the American Psychiatric Association, is the industry’s standard for classifying mental disorders.

Smith-Osborne and her team also work with medication prescribers to monitor how the children are responding. She also reviews every case along the way using objective measures of improvement.

Teachers within the school district are also involved.

Many of the patients’ parents have low health literacy and limited access to healthcare, Smith-Osborne said.

Social workers at the center help parents apply for the Affordable Care Act to address those issues.

“We are proud of this long-standing partnership with the AISD,” said Scott Ryan, dean of the School of Social Work. “We provide a needed service in the community and for the school district, while giving our social work graduate students studying direct practice in mental health clinical-based experience.”

The partnership aligns with UTA’s Strategic Plan 2020: Bold Solutions | Global Impact, by addressing health management within physical, mental, emotional and social contexts.

Smith-Osborne said mental health and physical health interact as the mind affects the body. After the sessions are complete, staff members connect students and their parents with community resources for continued care.

The partnership between UTA and the AISD is renewed on a year-by-year basis.