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Ms. Hamilton’s day: DHHS’s therapist helps students find peace amid mental health turmoil

 

The first meeting of the day for Afrika Hamilton, LPC concerns a student who was suspended, following an argument with a custodian that included threats. 

 

The student, Carrie*, has been diagnosed with at least two behavioral disorders and struggles with self-control and anger management. Hamilton, DHHS’s full-time therapist, sits at a desk with Corey Jefferson, an interrelated teacher who supports students with disabilities, while Dr. Chana Jackson, assistant principal for discipline and attendance, participates in the discussion while fielding calls from parents about their children’s tardies.  

 

The question everyone is here to answer: What can we do for Carrie? 

 

“Do we have the infrastructure to support a child with these needs?” Jefferson asks, twice. 

 

“I don’t want to keep her suspended,” Hamilton says. “But if we bring her back without supports in place, I feel like we are setting her up for failure.” 

 

The team agrees that Carrie needs the smaller environment of DeKalb County School District’s therapeutic program, Eagle Woods Academy. But placing her there will take time, and until then she needs one-on-one support from a paraprofessional. The team makes a plan to meet with Carrie’s mother and the school social worker the next day. Hamilton will call Carrie’s mom. 

 

The meeting disbands and Hamilton checks on a student in class, returning to her office to meet her first student of the day for a therapy session. 

 

Hamilton is assigned to DHHS through a partnership with CHRIS 180, an organization that provides children, adults, and families with high-quality, trauma-informed behavioral health services and support systems. 

 

The Druid Hills Education Foundation raises the money to pay CHRIS 180 for Hamilton’s services. This is Hamilton’s second year at DHHS. Students have completed treatment plans, reported significant improvement in their ability to handle stress, anxiety, and triggers, and shared that they feel less alone as they navigate their mental health struggles. 

 

“I’ve learned to identify what I’m feeling by talking it out and going through steps that you’ve given me,” a student shared. “I feel more comfortable opening up.”

 

“I am worth a lot.”

 

To get to Hamilton’s office, you walk through the media center and the teacher’s lounge before making a sharp turn into a cozy sanctuary with soft lamp lighting, a couch with a blanket draped over the arm, and a table with two zen gardens. 

 

All day long, students sink into this sofa and share their feelings and frustrations with Hamilton. She sometimes uses a game similar to Jenga to coax students into talking. She pulls a card with questions like, “What silly thing have you done that you were not embarrassed about?” Students answer the question and pull a brick from the tower in the same color as the question on the card.

 

Hamilton manages a caseload of about 20 students, most of whom she sees weekly. Students are referred by teachers, counselors, or anyone at the school who recognizes that a student might be in trouble. The typical signs are absenteeism, a decline in academic performance, and behavior issues. Hamilton starts with a parent meeting and a behavioral health assessment to determine what’s going on with the student. She creates a treatment plan, which usually involves weekly therapy sessions. 

 

“The progress and improvement the students have made is just incredible,” Hamilton says.

She is excited that a parent of a student she has been working with since last year started therapy. 

 

Hamilton sees students with depression, anxiety disorders, substance abuse disorders, ADHD, and other challenges. She uses cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), expressive arts therapy, and other techniques to help students shift their mindset and develop strategies for coping at school and at home. 

 

Hamilton teaches students to understand who they are and love themselves. She works with students on handmade books that connect their present, current, and future selves. 

 

“I learned how to control my anxiety, and how to not be afraid to ask for help,” a student shared in a survey. “And not everything is my fault, I am worth a lot, and not everyone deserves me and my kindness.”

 

The best endorsement Hamilton gets is from her students: “They tell me all the time that their friends want to come and talk to me.” 

 

The best of both worlds

 

After Hamilton finishes her first therapy session, she gets on a Zoom call to plan a speaking engagement with a colleague. As they discuss the many topics they want to cover, Hamilton, recently promoted to Team Lead at CHRIS 180, acknowledges being a “low-key overachiever.” 

 

Hamilton started her career at CHRIS 180 and then moved to Macon to work as a middle school counselor. She felt more like an administrator who did “everything but counseling.” 

 

“Kids were falling through the cracks,” she says. 

 

Now she has the best of both worlds. “I love working in a school setting and being on the therapy side of things.” 

 

After the Zoom call, Hamilton heads across campus to touch base with counselors, pull the schedule of a student she needs to connect with, and touch base with the school social worker about Carrie. Hamilton power walks from the C to A building, her boots thumping against the sidewalk. She greets everyone she passes, often sharing a quick laugh. Her campus tours are a great opportunity to have “walk meetings” with teachers. When she arrives in the counseling office, the staff greets her warmly. 

 

She returns to her office to catch up on notes and emails and, with two students scheduled for therapy out sick, eats lunch at her desk. She works at her computer until her next student arrives for her therapy appointment. 

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“We’re so lucky to have her.” 

 

Educators have long recognized the need for school-based mental health professionals. High school guidance counselors are overwhelmed with schedule changes, college counseling, and endless tasks that do not leave enough time for the deep listening students need when they are in crisis. 

 

The Georgia APEX program was founded in 2015 to provide mental health services to students in need. Several elementary, middle, and high schools in DeKalb have participated in the program, with CHRIS 180 as one of the program’s service providers. But the program does not have capacity to meet all the needs. 

 

When Covid struck, the depth of the mental health crisis among students was exposed. Faculty, staff, and parents in the Druid Hills community knew the school needed a full-time resource. 

 

Hamilton was a perfect fit, because of her experience in a school setting and her relatable personality that connects easily with high school students, faculty, staff, and parents. 

 

“Ms. Hamilton is amazing,” says Brett Slater, the IB coordinator. “We’re so lucky to have her.” 

 

After her last therapy appointment, Hamilton eyes with excitement the Amazon boxes piled high in her office. Her supervisor comes by to help Hamilton set up a “peace corner” in the media center. The peace corner, funded by a grant CHRIS 180 received from a family foundation,  will be open to all students, a place to self-regulate and unwind. 

 

Hamilton and her supervisor remove the books from two shelves in the corner of the media center and unpack boxes of fidget toys, coloring books, noise-canceling headphones, and other de-stressing tools. They unpack a diffuser for aromatherapy, a giant bean bag chair, pillows, inspirational decorations, and a rug. 

 

As they fix up the corner according to Hamilton’s vision, they discuss procedures for students to request a visit to the peace corner. 

 

Hamilton does not have time to work one-on-one with all the students at Druid Hills who could benefit, so she builds in activities that support a wider audience. Once a month, she spends a full day conducting teacher training for every teacher at the school during their planning period. Also once a month, she holds a session open to all students on topics such as friendship, conflict resolution, and circles of influence. 

 

She envisions her future as a teacher of teachers, sharing strategies for teaching students with mental health needs. 

 

“There’s not enough support,” Hamilton says, “because everybody needs support.” 

 

This story was written by Patti Ghezzi, a DHHS parent and member of the Druid Hills Education Foundation External Affairs Committee. Long ago, Ghezzi worked as an education reporter for the AJC. To report this story, Ghezzi shadowed Afrika Hamilton, LPC, for a full day. She did not sit in on individual therapy sessions. CHRIS 180 invites anyone interested in learning more about their services to visit http://chris180.org

 

The purpose of this story is to inspire parents and community members to donate to the Rally for the Red Devils Campaign to ensure a school-based therapist remains a daily presence at Druid Hills High School. Go here to donate: https://www.druidhillshigh.org/foundation

 

*Carrie is a pseudonym.

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