KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — The 2019-2020 school year is the first full school year that students at every high school and middle school in Knox County will have access to a designated mental health counselor.

The pilot program with Helen Ross McNabb Center started in November 2018.

Las school year, the counselors helped more than 600 students on a regular basis.

One of those counselors is Eric Minton, a graduate of Central High School.

Now he's working at his alma mater as a school-based clinician, better known to students as their mental health counselor.

"I feel like my job is to kind of calm the temperature in the room and to take in as much junk as I can and then send students back to class with like a clean template," said Minton.

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Though his office is at Central, he's employed by Helen Ross McNabb as one of 23 masters-level mental health therapists serving all 35 Knox County middle and high schools this year. 

"We know that the need is out there for mental health counseling and to get student support services within the school," said Lindsay Stone, Director of Children and Youth Mental health Programming at Helen Ross McNabb.

Directors said it's important for the counselors to be on school grounds so students are not leaving school in the middle of the day for therapy.

These counselors' jobs differ from the counseling staffs already established at each school. Knox County Schools employs 34.5 elementary school counselors, 40 middle school counselors, 62 high school counselors, 28.5 social workers, 11 therapists and 3 case managers.

Minton has 25 students he works with on a regular basis at Central, and a waiting list of more wanting help.

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"Anxiety and depression, self harm and suicidality. I mean that's probably 90 percent of my workload," said Minton.

But the number of kids and staff members who check in with him at lunch or passing in the hallway is much higher.

"It's not my job to fix them, not my job to fix the school," he said. "It's my job to kind of filter the experience for them."

It's working.

Students at schools across the county are taking full advantage of a designated person to help them through anxiety in and out of school.

"It's about changing the narrative of what it means to be distressed," said Minton.

He's watching his alma mater change before his eyes.

"If we can create a culture where students are affirmed in their not okay-ness then we get to have this like, the temperature of the room drops, and I do, I get to be a filter for that," said Minton.

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Any student can work with these counselors, but they will need parent consent if under the age of 16.

Some counselors share schools now, but Helen Ross McNabb will add people as the demand grows, with the goal of one counselor per school.