TAYLOR, LACKAWANNA COUNTY (WBRE/WYOU) — Schools face a challenge that goes beyond preparing children to become productive members of society. They must first address student mental health issues that can threaten their well-being now and in the future.

Eyewitness News teamed up with the Times Leader for a series of reports called “Invisible Battles” which center on children and mental health.

First up, we checked out a local school district’s strategy to help keep students’ mental health in check.

The door is open at Samantha Valente’s Riverside Elementary West office. The licensed professional counselor, LPC for short, has been on the job since late December.

She counsels students from kindergarten through second grade to tackle a growing issue in schools: mental health.

“If they are having a bad day they can come and talk or take a break,” stated Valente.

Valente is one of three licensed professional counselors hired this school year at Riverside one each at both elementary schools and another at the High School.

Riverside became the only Pennsylvania school district this school year to receive a $750,000 grant to pay the LPC salaries for three years. In just her first month on the job, Valente received mental health service referrals for about 15 kindergarten through 2nd-grade students.

But disorders like anxiety, depression, and obsessive-compulsive behavior can strike school kids at any age, and linger through life if left unaddressed.

“I think that it is nice that counselors are here because whenever you’re nervous or sad you can always talk to them,” said Bianca Wincovitch, 2nd Grader, at Riverside Elementary West.

“I like the counselors in the school because they help kids when they’re sad and have a bad day,” said Landon Yarem, 2nd Grader, at Riverside Elementary West.

Bad days are not only caused by stressors happening at school. Some stressors are more obvious than others. Even something as simple as food insecurity can send a student into a downward spiral.

The lack of consistent access to food can create huge obstacles for students to learn and grow. Some students struggling with stressors may barely act out, if at all. Nicole Brush is the LPC for hundreds of Riverside 7th through 12th graders.

“I think a lot of times in school people say ‘oh, you know this student seems like they need help’. Maybe they’re being disruptive in class, they seem to be pacing around a lot. Maybe they said one or two things that were maybe like a little out of character or disrespectful,” explained Nicole Brush, Licensed Professional Counselor, at Riverside School District.

By being in the high school, Brush is able to meet students where they are in the moment.

“And a lot of them, they’re teenagers and they want to be private with things, you know, and I think that’s another aspect of why I’m here because I can offer private counseling that students would get outside but have it here and have this sacred space for the students,” stated Brush.

High school senior Jennifer Genell considers that especially important because of an obstacle that could prevent students from seeking help: stigma.

“I think there definitely is still a slight stigma toward mental illness but overall the community here is very encouraging. I mean we walk in these doors and we know that there’s a team of people who are here to help us if we need it,” explained Jennifer Genell, Senior, Riverside Jr./Sr. High School.

According to 2021 Riverside data, more than one in three students in the district exhibited mental health problems requiring a referral for additional help.

Some of those problems were exacerbated or even caused by pandemic restrictions which impacted students’ academic, social, and emotional well-being.

“We’re dealing with, like, isolation but coming back to school and kind of just readjusting it was a process,” said Genell.

But now, students have immediate mental health resources to help when resources might otherwise not be readily available.

“It doesn’t have to get to the point where the child is experiencing trauma upon trauma upon trauma,” expressed Tina Wydeen, Licensed Clinical Social Worker at Riverside School District.

Tina Wydeen works with the LPCs to assess the needs of individual students and how to best address those needs to put them on the best path forward.

“You have a wonderful opportunity to create a climate of caring that you want them to leave within a sense of belonging,” explained Wydeen.

Wydeen says Riverside is trying to build what she calls a “continuum of care”. While the grant funding to provide LPCS is only for three years, district officials say they are exploring ways to maintain those mental health services.

Watch the video below of the extended interview with Nicole Brush, LPC.

Student health concerns cut across all communities in and beyond NEPA. Eyewitness News will take a closer look at a joint reporting project with Times Leader called “Invisible Battles” beginning Friday evening on Eyewitness News.

You can read the Times Leader’s first report in this Sunday’s edition.