After suffering years of physical and emotional abuse by her ex-husband, Bethany Mendoza found freedom in 2016. With support from Lydia Place and Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Services of Whatcom County (DVSAS), she left her husband and found her own housing with her two young kids.
She quickly realized her kids needed mental and emotional support to process the trauma they’d experienced. But as a single, working mom with no car, little free time and no extra money, she struggled to get them access to the care they needed.
Soon, however, she found support at her children’s elementary school. Their principal, upon learning of their struggles, connected the family with Compass Health, which provided counselors once a week — free of cost — to the school to help her kids.
Her daughter took advantage of the program early on but phased out of it as she grew older. Her son, now a teen, who’d witnessed much of the abuse while very young, still regularly meets with a counselor through Compass.
“My son has anxiety and depression disorders,” Mendoza said. “I feel like, this program, it has really helped him be able to verbalize those feelings before acting on them.”
For about the last decade, Compass Health has worked in partnership with school districts around Whatcom County to provide additional mental health support to students and families by bringing counselors and mental health specialists to schools to work with students.
When Shannon Webb, director of Whatcom County Outpatient at Compass Health, took the lead of the program in the 2020–21 school year, it contracted with just two school districts — Bellingham and Ferndale. That year, Compass received 122 referrals, with three staff members available to handle them.
Since then, Webb has tripled the staff and built partnerships with Blaine, Meridian, Nooksack, Lynden and Mount Baker school districts. In the 2022–23 school year, Compass received 773 referrals for additional student mental health support.
It’s no secret that more and more students are struggling with mental health in Whatcom County and across the country, especially as society readjusts coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, more are also seeking professional support from schools and outside organizations.
In 2010, 28.6% of 10th-grade students in Whatcom County reported having depressive feelings. After a continual, steady increase, 39.5% reported the same feelings in 2021, according to the Washington Healthy Youth Survey.
Just last week, the Washington Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction announced it will award $15 million to 26 school districts over the next three years with the goal of creating a safe and healthy environment. All Whatcom County school districts are included and will receive funding to hire mental health specialists or contract services, like Compass.
Compass Health works in conjunction with existing counselors and mental health specialists employed by school districts because the need is greater than the resources available.
“We’re still seeing the aftereffects of the pandemic, and our students are still recovering. Programs like Compass Health’s school-based and summer youth programs help nurture our children so that they can feel confident and supported,” Chris Cochran, the former director of counseling and mental health at Bellingham Public Schools, said in a news release. “The way we take care of our most vulnerable children says a lot about our strength as a whole community.”
Compass counselors have hub schools they operate out of, traveling to other schools to meet students or connecting with them via telehealth appointments. Mendoza said it was beneficial for her kids to have sessions at their schools — places they were comfortable — and appreciated that she didn’t have to spend time driving them around town, taking them to new and uncomfortable places.
“For parents like me, it’s extremely important because it gives our kids a way to reach these resources and have access to extra health care without putting so much pressure on the parents. The world is busy, many of us work two jobs,” said Mendoza, who currently works full time and is going to nursing school.
Mendoza also said she appreciates that she’s included in the process of providing care to her kids. She regularly emails and talks with her son’s counselor to discuss what she can do to support his mental health, his navigation of past traumas and his growth. She learns about what he’s working on and how to aid him in the process.
Last summer, Compass Health launched its youth summer group programs for mental wellness to the same students referred to them during the school year. Their goal is to continue support beyond the nine months of the school year.
“The reason that we offer these programs is that students’ mental health needs and concerns don’t stop at the end of the school year,” Webb said. “Sometimes they can grow larger, and so what we found is that we wanted to fill a gap.”
This year, with the help of $25,000 in funding from the Chuckanut Health Foundation and Whatcom Community Foundation, the youth summer programs are back, but with more expansive plans.
“Youth mental health — it really stood out to us. Going through the pandemic was hard for everybody, but it had a disproportionate impact on youth,” said Pamela Jons, the executive vice president of the Whatcom Community Foundation. “It seemed like a really obvious place for us to focus more resources on.”
The funding has allowed Compass to design several different programs for different cohorts of students. Students will be separated by age group and partake in different programs focused on topics like developing social skills through anxiety, LGBTQ+ acceptance and anger management. With the money, Compass has been able to invest in quality products, like workbooks and art supplies, and fund program excursions.
Compass is continuing to partner with local school districts, and they will be operating the support groups out of schools with other programming, allowing access to district transportation and meals.
Mendoza said her son loves to draw and is participating in an art-centered support group through Compass this summer. She’s happy to see her son taking advantage of the available support and flourishing into a young adult.
“I’m a huge advocate of mental health. We are allowed to have feelings. You are allowed to take space. You are allowed to feel your emotions,” she said. “You just can’t get stuck there. I feel like Compass has really helped with that.”