BEVERLY — Five area school districts are getting extra help with the growing problem of student mental health.

Manchester Essex Regional, Danvers, Peabody, Masconomet Regional and Swampscott are all using the services of a mental health clinician who has been hired by the Northshore Education Consortium.

The clinician, Jennifer Orlando, is available to work with students and families in any of the five districts, including meeting with them in their homes.

"I'm able to connect the school and the home, which the schools don't always have the resources to do," Orlando said. "I think there's a huge need."

Francine Rosenberg, the consortium's executive director, said the idea of a shared position came about in response to the increasingly complex needs of students.

The consortium operates eight special-needs schools for the 21 public school districts in the consortium, and has more than 500 students. But school districts can spend around $40,000 per year or more to send a student to a consortium school.

Rosenberg said some students could remain in their home districts if they get the help they need — which is where the new mental health position comes in. 

"The hope would be that the right intervention at the right time could prevent them needing to go to an out-of-district placement," Rosenberg said.

Orlando, who grew up in Gloucester and lives in Salem, is a licensed mental health counselor and school adjustment counselor. Students are referred to her by their home district, and she can work with up to 14 students at a time.

Orlando said she will meet students and their families wherever they want — in school, at home, "or a Dunkin' Donuts."

"Usually the parent is really invested in working to see what can be done," she said.

Orlando said she sees students who have anxiety, feel overwhelmed, have experienced trauma, or have any of a number of behavioral health concerns. One of the keys, she said, is to connect them with services in the community, including therapy, mentoring, a job, after-school activities, or housing.

"I was in community mental health for almost 10 years," she said, "and the things I'm seeing now are just so much more intense in terms of the diagnoses and the issues that individuals are facing."

The program, called the NEC Connections Program, is being funded over two years through a $115,000 grant from the Tower Foundation. The grant will cover the cost of the first year, and participating districts will pay a reduced fee in the second year, with the cost being subsidized by the Tower Foundation.

That reduced fee will be about $17,000 per district, according to the Northshore Education Consortium. It can cost $70,000 or more for a district to hire a full-time licensed clinician.

Allison Collins, director of student services for the Manchester-Essex Regional School District, said Orlando's availability to meet students and families outside of school makes her valuable. School adjustment counselors only occasionally make home visits, she said.

"It's more of an outreach position than most schools are able to provide, especially suburban schools in smaller districts that don't have that level of need for an outreach clinician," Collins said. "It fills a need that we've been seeing. I'm excited."

Paul Leighton can be reached at 978-338-2675 or pleighton@gloucestertimes.com.