Editor’s note: We have included this article as part of the Journal-Tribune’s coverage, dedicated to dealing with the mental health crisis in our community. Previous coverage has told the story of people in our community. This article is different. Mental health is not just a concern locally. Leaders at the state level are acknowledging the problem. This story details one way the state is working to help local communities address it.
In an area that has seen multiple youth suicides in the past year, teachers are now providing more than just an education.
“There’s quite a bit of trauma at Triad – not just Triad, but in a lot of districts – that kids are dealing with now, that we didn’t deal with when we were kids,” Triad Superintendent Vickie Hoffman said.
Beyond simply a place to learn, schools are evolving into a place to care for students.
While the need for mental health services in schools is felt within communities, it’s being recognized beyond the local level.
Governor Mike DeWine recently approved the Student Wellness and Success Fund, a $675-million grant that will provide funding to every school district in the state.
Over the next two years, local districts will receive nearly $3 million.
The funding must be used to provide non-academic supports, or “wraparound services,” such as mental or physical health services.
Ultimately, Fairbanks Superintendent Adham Schirg said these services help to boost academic performance.
“We know if students are not cared for – fed, clothed, secure – they’re not going to be able to learn to their full potential,” he said.
For fiscal year 2020, North Union will receive $389,074; Marysville, $293,464; Jonathan Alder, $216,189; Fairbanks, $212,594; and Triad, $99,103.
The amounts are even higher the next year.
In fiscal year 2021, North Union will receive $568,544; Marysville, $418,444; Jonathan Alder, $308,952; Fairbanks, $308,336; and Triad, $141,804.
The funds are awarded on a “per-pupil basis” and scaled according to federal poverty data. So, the more students and the lower household incomes are, the more funding a district receives.
Some schools are able to address mental health with their normal funding, Hoffman explained, but smaller schools like Triad can’t implement programs without extra financial help.
“We can’t just do that, we need something like this,” she said.
There is flexibility as to how the funding is used, but Hoffman said “it’s no surprise” much of it will go toward mental health services in the area.
“Even if you do happen to go through 13 years of school and never deal with any trauma, we want you be prepared for it because life happens,” she said.
Each district is required to work with a “community partner” to ensure funding helps meet local needs.
Local schools are teaming up with various partners, including the Mental Health and Recovery Board of Union County and the Madison-Champaign County Educational Service Center.
In cooperation with existing services, many local schools are using the funding to add new personnel.
Several districts are creating a pilot position, called a school navigator.
Marysville and North Union are adding the position to their staffs, while Schirg said Fairbanks will “more than likely” hire a navigator, although plans aren’t finalized.
The position is intended to provide school-based mental health and prevention services.
At Marysville, the employee would be placed at Creekview Intermediate and Navin Elementary schools and would complete mental health screenings and refer students for treatment within Union County.
Superintendent Diane Mankins said the individual would also provide ongoing case management services for students assigned for treatment.
“We are excited to receive these dollars,” Mankins said. “They are directly related to the goals of our district. We will be using them to serve some of our most at-risk youth with social-emotional concerns.”
The navigator at Fairbanks and North Union will also be an on-campus position that works at various school buildings to support staff and connect students with mental health services.
“I have wanted (a social worker) since the minute I came to Triad. The counselors are just inundated with trauma right now and a social worker is going to be able to help them do their jobs.”
-Triad Superintendent Vickie Hoffman
At Triad, Hoffman said the most significant investment will be adding a social worker to the district staff.
The employee will be hired in partnership with Mechanicsburg and will spend about two and a half days in each district every week. They will also offer counseling sessions over the summer.
Hoffman said the partnership makes the position more sustainable, so it can be kept in place even if state funding is cut after two years.
“I have wanted (a social worker) since the minute I came to Triad,” Hoffman said. “The counselors are just inundated with trauma right now and a social worker is going to be able to help them do their jobs.”
Triad is also hiring an elementary school guidance counselor in an effort to prevent mental health crises when students are older.
Jonathan Alder is taking a similar approach.
Superintendent Gary Chapman said the district was previously splitting a counselor’s time between two schools.
With the state funding, he said the district was able to create a full-time counselor position at Jonathan Alder Junior High and hire a full-time counselor at Monroe Elementary School.
He said this was Jonathan Alder’s “most urgent” need, but the district is still exploring ways the funding can also be used to support its current social worker.
Aside from bolstering staff, local districts are building upon existing mental health services and initiatives.
“We have a lot of things that work very well, but this helps us to expand them to their full potential,” North Union Superintendent Richard Baird said.
Many of the current programs emphasize preventative measures.
For instance, Triad uses a program that tracks online activity related to suicidal ideation, on student Chromebooks and social media.
“If I’m a student and I post the word ‘shoot’ on Twitter, we get a notification that someone within our (geographic) radius posted that,” Hoffman explained.
Through the program, Triad can screen for students who may benefit from mental health services. But, Hoffman said the new social worker will be able to actually connect students with them.
North Union also provides “signs of suicide” trainings and screenings.
Baird said an independent group occasionally offers sessions at the school that teach students how to look out for and report signs of suicide in their peers, as well as offering assessments in small groups.
With the state funding, he said the program can be offered more frequently and reach more students, staff and incorporate parents.
Each of the two schools also offer staff trainings, which the funding will contribute to.
Some programs implemented by Triad and North Union include the PAX Good Behavior Game, which helps students learn emotional regulation, and ROX (Ruling Our Experience), an empowerment program for girls.
Marysville will use some of the funding to help school resource officers and psychologists, while another portion will be used to train staff to better understand emotional trauma and how to alleviate symptoms.
The state funding also provides an opportunity to test out new services and trainings.
Over the next two years, Hoffman and Baird said their districts will gather data to evaluate the success of each program.
From there, the schools will pinpoint the most effective services and explore ways to sustain them after state funding ends.
Hoffman said looking forward is a crucial part of using the funding effectively.
Ultimately, she said the districts need to take what they learn during the two years of funding and continue to implement programs that support students afterward.
“We have to have a plan in place to change the forecast of our future,” Hoffman said.
If you or a loved one are in need of help, Union County’s free, 24/7 help line is available by calling 800-731-5577 or texting 4help. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline also offers 24/7, free and confidential help by calling 1-800-273-8255 or texting HELLO to 741741.
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