How Providing Mental Health Services in Schools Transformed My Practice

I grew up constantly surrounded by children. My house was the place where neighborhood kids congregated. Combine that with my mom being a teacher, and it’s not so surprising that I chose to work with children as a therapist. When considering your niche, it’s essential to focus on your passion, what comes naturally to you, and where your natural strengths are. 

When I started in private practice, there were only a handful of therapists providing services to children in the state of Delaware. I was also noticing the rising trend of emotional difficulties in children. From both a business and moral perspective, I thought targeting this population was critical. However, from the start, it became evident that the very people I wished to serve would struggle to get to my office. So I started to think about how I could bring my service to them—by offering mental health services in schools. 

How to Expand Your Reach into Your Niche Population

As business owners, we must focus on solving problems rather than shrinking from them. With that in mind, I knew I needed to come up with a solution to reaching the population that I most wanted to serve. At the same time, I had two children who attended the same school as many of my ideal clients, and so the wheels in my brain started turning. 

I made a very informal pitch to the administration of a nearby school, who agreed to allow me to come and provide therapy onsite. In the beginning, it was clumsy. I hadn’t yet created an efficient process, but I pushed forward. It was during that clumsy beginning that I learned what I needed to know to develop a program that would enable me to expand and help even more children. 

I worked diligently to create an intake process, procedures, and consent forms specific to providing mental health services in schools. I pitched my idea to a large school district and ultimately was offered the opportunity to provide services to four middle schools. That was in 2007, and here I am in 2021, providing services to more than 92 schools throughout Delaware with more than 48 therapists working in my practice. 

Identifying Problems + Creating Solutions = Entrepreneurship

So what made this successful for me? The fact that I created a program that no one else was doing at the time helped to propel its success. I saw a problem—increasing mental health needs in children and teens—and found a way to solve that problem. When you’re coming up with the idea for your own business, finding a need and then a way to meet that need is a good way to ensure your longevity and success. 

It also helped that offering mental health services in schools benefited both parents and the schools. Parents didn’t need to miss work for their child’s appointments. The students themselves didn’t need to be pulled out of school to attend therapy. And often, behavioral and emotional challenges are triggered by the school setting, so being able to address them right in that environment helped with my clinical outcomes. 

I worked hard to learn the nuances of providing mental health services in schools  to expand my expertise to be even more helpful to my target audience. It’s important to note that you don’t necessarily have to be an expert when you first start out. You can build on your passion and work on becoming an expert. In time, I had established myself as the go-to person on the topic of mental health services in schools. Building credibility in your niche is essential and will draw referrals to you.

How to Start Offering Mental Health Services in Schools

As we move beyond the pandemic, the need for mental health services will increase across the board—you’ve likely already seen the surge in your own practices. Schools, in particular, will be feeling the impact and will be seeking the services of therapists who treat children and teens. If you’re interested in expanding your practice to offer mental health services in schools, here’s out to get started. 

  1. Identify a school in your area.
    It’s easiest to start with a grade level you’re most comfortable working with. For instance, I enjoy middle and high school-aged children, so that’s where I initially pitched. 
  1. Find a way to become familiar with the needs of that specific school.
    Ask students, parents, or school staff what the common issues are. In my experience, you’ll hear things like self-harm, substance use, or family issues. These are common themes in many American schools. Once you have an idea of the school’s struggles, it becomes easier to pitch your services to address those specific needs. It’ll also give you an idea if your area of expertise is a good match for that population. 
  1. Start with the school counselor.
    School counselors are the ones who are often overwhelmed with the emotional needs of the school community and will likely be open to offers of assistance. You also might consider offering to do free workshops based on the issues faced by the school. For example, if you know there is a high rate of self-harm, you could conduct a seminar on that topic for the school staff and parents. 
  1. Talk to parents about their concerns.
    It’s essential for parents to buy into your services because they can influence a school’s decision to partner with you. Get their thoughts and concerns—parents have insight into their children and their children’s friends that school staff might not have. Don’t forget that schools are also part of the larger community, and that community is also a stakeholder in the schools. Be intentional in the relationships you form with community members.

  2. Check your insurance policies.
    If you bill insurance for your services, be sure to find out what their policies are for reimbursement when the service location is a school. Many companies allow for this to be the place of services, but some don’t. Do your homework to make sure you can continue to bill your insurance clients, and be prepared to advocate for your clients and insist on coverage for school-based services.

When forming your pitch, remember to focus on how you can solve problems, meet the needs of the schools, and offer support to the students and their families. Especially if you’re approaching a school cold, you’ll need to make it abundantly clear why your services would be valuable to them. 

Once your pitch has been accepted and you’re established in your school, you’ll have to get set up to efficiently treat those new clients. To streamline this process, create a workflow specifically for your school-based clients. Think about who will be making referrals to you, how new clients will get set up with you, how you will verify insurance, and how you’ll do your marketing. The staff of the school will already be super busy, so your approach to school-based mental health care shouldn’t depend on them to do a lot of your heavy lifting. 

I love providing mental health services in schools. It’s rewarding for me, and if you’re passionate about expanding your reach and helping more young people, it might be rewarding for you as well. Once you have the right system and workflows in place, you can focus your energy on your new client base.

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