Second of three stories.

When it comes to tending the mental and emotional well-being of students, the longtime social workers at Portland High School say it’s all about crisis management.

Sophia Payson and Katie Small have both worked at the school for more than a decade and each has a caseload of around 100 students they see regularly.

But that doesn’t include students who may suddenly be facing an issue that impacts their mental health, from learning their parents are getting divorced or breaking up with a boyfriend or girlfriend, to the social media drama that can engulf the school on any given day.

Even so, both women say they wouldn’t want to do anything else.

“We’re full-out all the time, but this (job) is amazing,” Small said recently.

And Payson said what she most likes about her work is, she “can make a real difference. I’m here (for the kids) five days a week.”

Both Payson and Small also said it means a lot that the Portland Public Schools community “understands and values” their contributions.

According to School Department records, the city is spending $1.5 million on high school guidance and counseling services in the current fiscal year. That’s over $200,000 more than the district spent in 2016.

In addition to the two social workers at Portland High, the School Department also employs two at Deering High School and one at Casco Bay High School.

Connecting with students

Small said she and Payson play a unique role in the life of their school. The sole goal, she said, is to connect with students: “Teenagers are fantastic. We love, love love them.”

Principal Sheila Jepson said it makes a “huge” difference when students can talk about their lives with a caring adult. She said the school has a great group of social workers, guidance counselors, teachers and a school resource officer, and the kids know they’re always available.

Jepson, Payson and Small all said while their purpose is to build a relationship of trust and open communication with students, it’s really the teachers who are on the front line.

The teachers are most often the ones who will refer a student to the two social workers or the school resource officer for a helping hand.

Jepson said Payson, Small and the school resource officer, Mike Bennis, make a good team who “work well together and are in continual communication, which is critical.”

The hope is that all three can help students make a real connection and “be a role model and someone students can reach out to,” Jepson said. “(They’re) a true resource for students and administrators. They’re an extra set of eyes, ears and heart (and) are very essential.”

Depression, anxiety

Payson said her job mostly entails helping students overcome the feeling of “’I can’t do this.’” She said students can often feel truly “overwhelmed and pressured” by both in-school and outside forces.

Small said what she deals with on a daily basis is helping students with feelings of “depression, anxiety and stress.”

Domestic and dating violence, suicidal thoughts, and student or parental substance abuse are also issues that Payson, Small and Bennis find themselves dealing with regularly.

Jepson said what she sees is that easy access to social media and online content can often “feed (into that) anxiety and pressure” students are constantly feeling.

“The social work (we can do) is great and super important,” Payson said, but there’s only so much she and Small can do if a student is in need of more intensive assistance.

While Payson and Small do everything they can to help students manage their thoughts and emotions, they often end up referring them to outside professionals, who can provide more clinical and ongoing therapies.

“We just can’t provide that traditional therapy that focuses on specific issues and sets goals,” Small said.

It’s due to the limited amount of time Small and Payson are able to spend one-on-one with students that the referral to an outside professional is so important and necessary, both women said.

There is also the option of sending students to the in-school behavorial health clinic provided by Day One, a nonprofit with a mission of reducing substance use and addressing the mental health needs of teens across Maine. But that service is also constrained by the amount of grant funding that’s available, according to Payson.

Both Payson and Small said students these days don’t seem to feel any stigma or embarrassment in coming to them to talk, no matter the topic.

“They’ve grown up with a lot more information on (the impact of) anxiety and depression,” Payson said, adding “sometimes it’s the adults who are most uncomfortable” asking for help.

Both social workers also said there doesn’t seem to be much difference between male and female students when it comes to feeling comfortable seeking out support if they need it.

“I’m sometimes surprised by the number of boys that will come in to talk,” Small said. Payson agreed, but also said “some boys are harder to reach than others, for sure.”

Both Payson and Small have master’s degrees in social work and both also frequently rely on the resources provided by the School Social Work Association of America. Jepson said both also participate in professional development opportunities and their work is supervised and reviewed on a regular basis.

While Payson said she and Small are “open to seeing all students and all students and staff can access our services, what we do is almost solely crisis-driven.”

Kate Irish Collins can be reached at 710-2336 or [email protected]. Follow Kate on Twitter: @KIrishCollins.

The series

Part 1: The challenges facing efforts to integrate mental-health support in area schools.

This week: The role of the school counselor isn’t what it used to be.
Next week: Students regularly practice lock-down and active-shooter procedures; we’ll examine the protocols and their impact.

Mental health resources

• Cumberland County Crisis Response: Toll-free crisis intervention and suicide hotline, available to any resident of Cumberland County 24 hours a day at 888-568-1112. More information at

• NAMI Maine Helpline: Confidential helpline for peers, family members, friends, professionals and law enforcement, Monday-Friday, 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Toll-free at 800-464-5767, press “1.” Email: [email protected]. More info at

• Maine 211: Connect with specialists 24/7; a free and confidential service. Dial 211, text your zip code to 898-211, email [email protected], or go online at

• Maine Behavioral Health:  24/7 information about treatment options. A “Rapid Access” program also allows callers to receive a mental health assessment quickly to begin receiving services. Call 844-292-0111.

 Federal Bureau of Investigation: To report a tip to the FBI Boston Office, which covers threats in the state of Maine, available 24/7, call 857-386-2000 or go online at:

Katie Small, left, and Sophie Payson are both longtime social workers at Portland High School. Their overall goal, they say, is to build relationships and make connections with students.

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