Mental health therapists are an integral part of a school’s staff. In recent years, schools have recognized the profound impact that mental health has on students’ overall well-being and academic success. To address this critical need, many schools have embraced the invaluable role of a school-based mental health therapist. These dedicated professionals bring a wealth of expertise to the table, fostering a positive and supportive environment in which students can thrive, which is exactly what Change Inc.’s Community and School Collaborative (CSC) aims to do.
Today, the CSC has mental health practitioners and professionals in 32 Twin Cities metro schools to provide on-site school-based mental health services to more than 650 children and families.
Recently, one of Change Inc.’s school-based mental health therapists was praised by her school’s leadership. That therapist is LaDonna Jackson. LaDonna is based at Hmong International Academy in Minneapolis. Hmong International Academy (HIA) is a Hmong culturally specific school with grades pre-kindergarten through fifth grade.
Prior to starting at starting at Change Inc., LaDonna graduated from college in 2016 and started her career as an AmeriCorps Promise Fellow, and then as a special education co-teacher at Battle Creek School in St. Paul. When funding was taken away for the position, LaDonna transferred to River East School as a mental health practitioner. It was here that she was exposed to the mental health epidemic and crisis happening at such a young age in children.
While at Battle Creek, she met a therapist from Change Inc. based at that school, and was interested in the work they were doing. This position was the launching point for LaDonna deciding to go back to school to get her Master’s in Marriage and Family Therapy from Argosy University. After completing her Master’s degree, LaDonna was brought in as an intern for Change Inc. in September 2019 before going full time.
A positive impact of a school-based mental health therapist is that they can help reduce stigma surrounding mental health. By having a therapist on campus, mental health concerns can be normalized and can be addressed as a regular part of a student’s overall health and well-being. This can help reduce feeling of shame or embarrassment that students may have about seeking mental health support.
LaDonna says the most common mental health issues she is seeing in students at HIA are grief, peer conflict, peer social anxiety, and an increase in dependency on vaping. In order to create a supportive and inclusive environment for mental health, LaDonna says her main goal is to create a presence in the school. She is a familiar face in the hallways, and says eating lunch with the kindergarteners is her favorite part of each day.
In fact, Hmong International Academy’s leadership say “what an amazing addition Ms. LaDonna has been to our HIA community both for the students she serves and how she is a constant and positive presence for others around the building. Our students have formed quick, positive relationships with her and we have seen growth for them in their ability to self-regulate and work through their challenging situations. In addition, other students who do not have the pleasure of working with her have gravitated towards her as well, as she is ever-present in the hallways, our school lunchroom, and during some transition times.”
As a mental health professional, LaDonna knows the importance of monitoring her own mental health and wellbeing. In order to balance her role with her own self-care, she says she focuses on body check-ins and taking intentional time to monitor her own feelings. When things become overwhelming, she said she leans on her Clinical Supervisor, David Hesse, for support.
David has been with Change Inc. since 2010 and is a school-based mental health therapist at Marcy School for the Arts in Minneapolis. He is also a clinical supervisor and LaDonna is one of his clinician supervisees. The two have formed a close relationship and David is especially proud of LaDonna’s work at HIA. LaDonna rose to the occasion and David says “She didn't just step into the role of a primary provider as a site lead, but she's really building a very firm foundation for her style of leadership of her clinical work, and of being a primary provider at the school.”
Her greatest strength, David says, is that she has a great mind about helping others. LaDonna takes pride in building strong connections and relationships. She works relationally as well as systemically, not just focusing on the kids’ needs, but also the families’ needs as a whole. She recognizes that mental health is intertwined with various aspects of a student’s life, including their academic performance, social interactions, and family dynamics. In understanding these interconnected factors, LaDonna works to provide comprehensive support that addresses the root cause of mental health challenges that students are facing.
LaDonna says that some of the ways she stays up to date with the latest mental health challenges of students is getting tuned into what kids are being exposed to. She hears an awful lot about Tik Tok from students these days and tries to keep familiar with what’s going around on social media as it has such a large (and often negative) impact on mental health, even in younger kids.
While there continues to be a stigma around receiving help for mental health concerns, even in 2023, the work LaDonna is providing is making a difference. By addressing mental health challenges early on, she plays a crucial role in shaping the well-being of students, enabling them to reach their full potential and become resilient. As shown by the praises of HIA’s leadership about LaDonna, schools that invest in mental health services see every day the profound impact it has on students’ lives and the importance of fostering a supportive environment.