New focus placed on local high school students’ mental health

Amber Guidry (left) is the behavioral health counselor at HHS and Natosha Pena serves at DHS.

This is the first school year that no-cost behavioral health support services have been available for students at Destrehan High School and Hahnville High School thanks to an expansion of school-based health services by Access Health Louisiana, and recently students were given a Universal Screener assessment to identify students who may be at risk for poor learning outcomes.

“We are in an unprecedented time with so many stressors in our lives and our teens are impacted even more, while they are trying to figure out who they are and how they fit in,” Angie Ruiz, LCSW and AHL director of school behavioral health services, said. “Universal screening assessments are brief, reliable, and valid questionnaires conducted with all students from a grade level. Depending on each assessment, students’ risk levels are classified as high, moderate, or low. All parents want their children to be happy and successful. For that to happen, we need to take a holistic approach of teaching them to advocate for their health and mental health.”

Ruiz said that a student who is struggling with anxiety, grief, or depression will not be able to absorb information in class as well, and that will impact both their academic performance and physical health.

“Teenagers spend most of their day at school, so it makes sense to give them quick access to mental health services when needed at their own school where they feel comfortable,” she said.

Amber Guidry, a licensed professional counselor who provides school-based therapy at HHS, said students found to be most at risk after the assessment met with their school counselor and were given the option to receive more extensive, ongoing counseling.

“Some of the most common issues I am seeing among students are anxiety – specifically social anxiety and test-taking anxiety,” Guidry said, adding that with standardized testing approaching in the spring she expects the number of students seeking help will only increase.

“Having Access Health Louisiana clinics at the high schools is very convenient for families,” Guidry said. “Parents do not have to leave the parish to find counseling due to limited counseling resources locally. It is even more convenient because students can have therapy at school without having to be checked out for an appointment. Therapy is so important for adolescents at this age because they are influenced by many outside sources.”

Guidry said therapy can provide students tools and a safe space to talk so that the students will have life skills to take them into young adulthood.

Natosha Pena, AHL’s licensed professional counselor at DHS, said students are only taken out of class to receive therapy during their non-core classes.

“This way, schools can be sure that students are getting a balance of the support services they so desperately need, while still maintaining their commitment to quality education,” she said.

Jerry Lewis Smith, SCPPS executive director of child welfare and attendance and student services, said that amidst the backdrop of the traumatic events of the past two years, there are students who come to school with a varied array of social-emotional wellness and mental health needs.

“St. Charles Parish Public Schools’ commitment to supporting students’ mental health needs is directly aligned with our mission to develop empathetic, involved, productive and responsible citizens by providing every student high quality educational opportunities that empower each to become enthusiastic life-long learners,” Smith said. “We are grateful for our partnership with Access Health Louisiana which offers our students access to critical behavioral health support at their school campus, minimizing the amount of time students are out of the classroom.”

SCPPS has been working with AHL for a decade to provide no-cost healthcare services for its students. Currently AHL has school-based wellness programs in place servicing seven schools in the parish – Hahnville High, Destrehan High, Luling Elementary, J.B. Martin, R.J. Vial Elementary, Albert Cammon Middle, and St. Rose Elementary. Only the high school campuses have behavioral health services at this time.

“Students enrolled in any of our school-based health services can also receive psychiatry referrals to providers within our network as needed,” Chenier Reynolds-Montz, vice president of school health and strategic media for AHL, said. “We also offer free home delivery of prescription medications for all of our patients including those with ADHD.”

To access any of Access Health Louisiana’s support services offered in its school-based health center program, parents must complete a consent and enrollment form annually. For more information on school-based health services within SCPPS, visit


About Monique Roth 919 Articles
Roth has both her undergraduate and graduate degree in journalism, which she has utilized in the past as an instructor at Southeastern Louisiana University and a reporter at various newspapers and online publications. She grew up in LaPlace, where she currently resides with her husband and three daughters.

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