BARNEGAT, NJ - School nurses' offices fill up daily with students complaining about headaches and tummy aches.  In the meantime, these same children may be experiencing another problem that goes beyond their physical symptoms. Sometimes, the signs point to the need for another type of help.

Many recognize the link between particular physical complaints and stress, often signaling anxiety and depression.  In the past, it’s been somewhat taboo to talk about how mental health plays a part in ordinary life. That said, Barnegat Schools are taking on the issue head-on.

Barnegat may be one of the first in New Jersey to merge outside clinical counseling services with public education. Robin’s Nest, which recently joined with Acenda Integrated Health, offers mental health care on an outpatient basis. In a unique partnership with the Barnegat School District, students will have access to the agency’s services during school hours. 

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The program won’t dip into taxpayer dollars at all.  Instead, parents use their health insurance benefits, enabling their children to receive clinical counseling services from licensed social workers and counselors. The once a week sessions are strategically planned around the student’s school schedules. The program takes the burden off parents in finding their children help and the means to get them to counseling in limited after-school hours.

Serving approximately 3500 students, the Barnegat School District employs five counselors at the high school level, three in middle school and one in each of the four elementary schools. Leah Fieger Purpuri acts as the District Supervisor of Guidance.

Purpuri started last year in the supervisory position in Barnegat after four years as a school counselor in Lacey. However, it’s not her first time within the local district and she can’t be happier that she came back.

“There’s something special about Barnegat,” shares Purpuri. “The kids care about each other and are very accepting of one another.”

Additionally, Purpuri describes her team as “amazing counselors,” many of whom carry the responsibility of up to 500 students.  In some cases, Barnegat school counselors juggle their schedules to meet with individual children in need of 45 minute weekly sessions. This equates to an outpatient level of care.

Mental Health Issues among School-Aged Children

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more and more children aged 6-17 are experiencing depression and anxiety issues. Meanwhile, the CDC also reports that not all of the youngsters get the treatment they need.

Barnegat Superintendent of Schools Dr. Brian Latwis offers insight into how the increased availability to mental health counseling will benefit students.  He stresses the importance of dealing with adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and their long-term effects.

“A caring adult can make a big difference in a child’s life, “says Latwis. “This will give our students more opportunity to talk to someone when they need help.”

Experts say ACEs include children dealing with divorce and death, as well as abuse and neglect. Problems escalate when the experiences are brushed aside or go unnoticed. 

“Trauma of any kind indicates a student needs a level of care best suited by clinical services,” agrees Purpuri.

If something is rough at home, it has a negative ripple effect,” Purpuri continues. “Sometimes, extenuating circumstances become more apparent.”

Mental health issues manifest in school in a variety of ways.  In some cases, grades drop or even plummet. Students appear differently in class. Their attitude and demeanor exhibit changes.

Purpuri agrees with the national studies indicating that anxiety disorders are showing up with increased frequency in many school-aged children. She attributes social media as a significant part of the problem. “Kids have a whole alternate digital world, " explains Purpuri. “However, it has few benefits and mostly brings on stress.”

Integrating School Counseling and Outside Services

As it now stands, school counselors receive referrals for help from a variety of sources.  In addition to teachers and administrators, some students ask for assistance on their own.

Barnegat school counselors attempt to keep the pulse on every area of the student’s life. According to Purpuri, they work on bridging the gap between school and family. This includes building relationships and rapport with the children and checking in on them.

 Meanwhile, there are challenges. “Some children aren’t always receptive to the help,” admits Purpuri. “Some personalities are more open than others.”

In some cases, students may feel more comfortable speaking about their strengths and limitations with an outside counselor.  It might be as simple as connecting with a new face perceived as unrelated to the school.

The District plans on calling the new program REACH, which stands for Resource for Essential Access to Clinical Healthcare. However, one can’t miss the enthusiasm in Purpuri’s feelings about REACH. She also thinks of it as “Reaching Every Amazing Child Here.”

The REACH program begins in the fall with eventual plans to access all school levels, starting with older students.

Stephanie A. Faughnan is a local journalist and Director of Writefully Inspired, a professional writing and resume service. Feel free to contact her at