Michael Brooks, a school-based therapist for Wilder, outside his office at Ramsey Middle School

Wilder School-Based Mental Health Expands Beyond Elementary Schools in Saint Paul

Michael Brooks thinks every school would benefit from an on-site mental health professional. “Every school, nationwide,” says Michael, a school-based therapist with Wilder Community Mental Health and Wellness. “You cannot ignore the fact that life happens. To expect children to go on as if things aren’t happening to them is preposterous.”

Michael joined the Wilder school-based mental health team two years ago because he wanted to dig underneath the behaviors he had encountered during a 20-year career in human services. “I’m a family systems person,” Michael says. “I want to know what’s going on, what happened to you. You aren’t just kicking trash cans over and throwing stuff—something happened. I realized we can help change the trajectory of what’s happening with some of these kids.” Through Wilder’s Kofi program, Michael provides culturally responsive mental health services at Ramsey Middle School for students of African descent, who make up about 45% of the student body.

Therapists and Parents Wanted Services in Middle and High Schools

Wilder has provided culturally responsive school-based mental health services in Saint Paul for almost 30 years, mostly in elementary schools. Research shows that early intervention into children’s mental health supports healthy development.

Mental health professionals on the team, though, saw value in continued school-based support when students with complex mental health needs transitioned to middle school and high school, says Cristina Combs, a Wilder school-based clinical supervisor. Parents and caregivers had also asked that school-based mental health services continue into middle school and beyond. The desire of professionals and parents—including responses in a 2017 evaluation of Kofi by Wilder Research— helped guide the school-based mental health team’s decisions about where to expand as funding became available.

Since 2017, Wilder expanded to 11 additional schools in Saint Paul. In all, school-based therapists now work full time  in 22 schools in Saint Paul. Nine schools serve middle or high school students. Michael chose to work with middle school students because of the challenges that tweens face with changing bodies, a new understanding of the world and enormous peer pressure. “This is a very, very tough age,” he says.

Michael Creates a Healing Culture of Mental Health and Trauma Awareness

As the Saint Paul Public School district works to address racial disparities in discipline rates, Michael brings his perspective as a therapist who sees the effects of race-based stress on students and families. Parents see the difference in discipline rates, Michael says. His middle school students see the disparity, too, and internalize it as being because of their appearance.

Michael brings this perspective when he consults with teachers and faculty on the trauma and mental health needs of students. He works to open discussions about race and trauma in the school with the goal of creating a culture where all students feel supported. “That’s the beauty of me being able to present to the entire faculty, to get them to reflect,” Michael says. “How can we have a real, honest conversation about students who are disciplined for the behaviors that other students have?”

With his individual caseload, Michael meets one-on-one for therapy with students at the school who are struggling, with the goal of helping them succeed at school and at home. He also works with students’ families and caregivers to understand and address the students’ needs within their families. One student he worked with had been repeatedly hospitalized with suicidal ideation. The student was isolated and didn’t talk much. After months of therapy with Michael, the student communicates more, his grades improved, and he joined after-school activities. “Now he jokes,” Michael says. “He never used to joke. His personality has started to blossom. It’s been a privilege to see him grow through a healthy, therapeutic relationship.”