Meet Jen McNally: ESU 5's mental health model strives to provide wellness for all

Meet Jen McNally: ESU 5's mental health model strives to provide wellness for all

By Tyler Dahlgren

Though 18 years in the making, the story of Jen McNally’s career really starts anew each morning.

As coordinator for ESU 5’s Mental Health Program, which was piloted ahead of the 2017-18 school year, no two days ever look quite the same for McNally, a psychotherapist herself whose comprehensive approach to mental wellness in the school setting centers on the foundation of self-care.

McNally’s career ride has been a whirlwind, especially over the past three years. In addition to her work inside of ESU 5, where eight of the 10 districts have adopted her team’s program structured to provide wellness for all, McNally has consulted with service units and districts across the state (she even works with a trauma-sensitive school in New Jersey) and shared her wellness presentation, “When Coffee Isn’t Enough”, on average once-a-week, both in Nebraska and nationally.

One thing has remained constant through it all.

“I get to go to work every day and be inspired,” said McNally. “I’m inspired every single day, and not just by what we are doing in ESU 5, which I’m tremendously proud of, but I get to go to districts all over and I see a universal display of passion, commitment and dedication. And how do you not respect that?”

Everybody has mental health, a notion that lives at the core of everything McNally has worked to implement since 2017 and the driving force behind the “Wellness for All” approach. From the students sitting in their desks to the teachers standing in front of the classroom to the cooks in the cafeteria.

“People tend to identify mental health as those top-tier kids or the major depression, oppositional defiant and intermittent explosive disorders, but everybody has mental health,” said McNally. “One of the things I’ve been proud while travelling across the state and interacting with different rural and larger schools is the shift of wording from mental health to what I really push for, which is mental wellness and the idea of self-care.”

It’s okay to not be okay sometimes, McNally explained, even healthy. An off-day isn’t an abnormality, and that pertains to educators, too. Much of McNally’s work comes back to school climate, one of the three contributing factors, along with leadership and salary, to why 44 percent of teachers leave the profession after five years.

“Climate is a big deal, and that’s a specific area I analyze when I consult,” she said. “How is the climate and culture in a school supporting not only the students, but the educators too? We want kids to be healthy learners, but we also need healthy educators. There’s no teacher that won’t do something if they feel like it would benefit a child, which is such an amazing thing and why I value educators so much.”

McNally understands the importance of collaboration, too. In education, and in mental health especially, it’s not productive to operate on an island. Since the program’s inception, ESU 5 has been able to hire three clinicians, LIMHP Cole Stark, school psychologist Jamie Mapp and, hired this year, mental health practitioner Kelsey Koranda.

“There’s that quote, ‘The five people closest to you tell a lot about you’, and I could not have asked or hoped for a better team of clinicians,” McNally said. “They’re phenomenal. They believe in what we’re doing, in that model of wellness for all, and they work tirelessly.”

In August, McNally and ESU 5 began a partnership with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and Dr.’s Susan Swearer and Kara Viesca, who became interested in studying the mental health model after researching the impacts the self-care strategies were having on educators in the classroom. In addition, McNally has worked with the UNL Teacher Scholars Academy and Doane University Chairperson of Undergraduate Studies Dr. Linda Kalbach. She’s presented to future educators and consulted with university professors.

“The goal is to have a mental health model we can provide to other ESUs and other districts inside and outside of Nebraska,” McNally, who is also entering into an exciting new partnership with Millard Public Schools, said. “The purpose of the presentation and of the collaborative work we’re doing is to provide specific strategies to build and sustain mental wellness, because your physical and your mental health are powerhouses that both have to work.”

What McNally has discovered in her work is the unique identity of each school district she encounters, complete with a varying set of needs and goals. The same can be said for every student in those districts. It’s a complex world, where education and mental wellness cross over, and the challenges continue to evolve with the times.

“Kids have different pressures than they did 20, 15 or even 10 years ago,” said McNally. “When I had a rough day in school, or if somebody said something that wasn’t kind, I could go home and disconnect from whatever was worrying me and just be with my family. That’s not necessarily the case now.”

The biggest difference between now and then is access to technology and the emergence of social media. Kids in 2020, and adults, for that matter, compare their behind-the-scenes to highlight reels. This leads to many challenges for McNally and mental health specialists everywhere and places an extra importance on innovation and the willingness to explore outside of the box.

“Being evidence-based is essential in decision-making and analyzing data when it comes to best practices,” McNally said. “The assessments we’ve chosen to use within the UNL model are specific, and we keep very clear data points to make sure they’re showing the outcomes we want to see with kids.”

McNally said that what she does is just a small component of what educators do every day. She often marvels at the love and commitment educators put forth in ensuring their colleagues and students are doing well, a passion which drives everything she does.

“Educators shape everything for kids,” she said. “Every adult can think of a past teacher who truly impacted their lives, myself included. When I wake up, I have the opportunity to be inspired by educators and inspired by kids. There’s no better job than that.”

If McNally can help one teacher in a building implement practices into the classroom that positively impact a student’s well-being, then her day was a success. Hopefully, she said, a ripple effect will follow.

“We’ll continue to push forward, to work hard and to advocate for the importance of mental wellness.”