Levy spearheads funding mental health prevention in county schools

Mental health graphic

“If a kid is feeling down, it’s important they can work their way through those feeling with an adult that they trust in an environment where they are already at,” said Mitch Anderson, Director of the Benton County Health Department.

In 2012 Benton County voters overwhelmingly approved the county’s operating levy renewal to provide five more years of supplemental funding to support public safety and health services. Following approval of the levy, the Health Department spearheaded a partnership with Trillium Family Services and Benton County School Districts to utilize levy funds to staff mental health prevention activities and a counselor in every school. Trillium Family Services leveraged additional funds to make this project a reality.

“When you put the services where the kids are, you have higher rates of success,” said Anderson.

The purpose of mental health prevention and education services in schools and community-based programs is to help children live healthy lives with their families.

Reaching kids in our schools

Health sector professionals are able to reach a larger population in a more fluid way when they’re supporting kids and families in their safe places, rather than requiring them come to an outpatient mental health facility.

Leigh Santy, principal at Garfield Elementary School in Corvallis school district, praises the integration of mental health prevention support in schools, “Having preventative counseling support and individual counseling support from Trillium has been so impactful for students at Garfield. It has allowed us to be more responsive to the individual needs of students and families.” 

Within Benton County, the Alsea, Philomath, and the Corvallis school districts are all served by the Trillium Prevention program.

Chiharu Blatt, Valley Community Services Manager with Trillium Family Services, said, “We’re able to reach a lot more kids when we’re supporting them in their normal routines and safe places. The therapists in the schools are all qualified mental health professionals with a master’s level degree or higher.

“We evaluate each school as its own community with varying needs and strengths. Then we determine the most effective services to support that specific community.”

Some services sought in schools are behavioral health screenings; counseling for grief, anger management or life transitions; in-class presentations on anti-bullying, health relationships and depression; and consultation on developing therapeutic interventions for schools to use instead of relying on suspension or expulsion.

“At Garfield, we work with students in class, in groups, and individually to develop their skills to be successful students.  Having support from Trillium has allowed us to do that so much more effectively,” said Santy.

Mental health prevention specialists provide individual check-ins with students, group therapy, educational outreach in classrooms or assemblies, as well as training for school administration.

“A huge success in the first year was starting to get kids that identify and self-refer. In addition to the great success of helping these kids, this shows the presence of mental health professionals in the schools seems to help lower the stigma around mental health and break down barriers to kids taking care of themselves,” said Blatt.

Mental health prevention specialists are staffed in all levels of schools, from elementary to high school.

Steve Kunke, Principal of Crescent Valley High School, highly values the presence of mental health professionals on site, “The support that Trillium Family Services offers students and counselors at Crescent Valley High School is invaluable.  Some students benefit through regular, on-going treatment.  The needs of other students can be quickly addressed when a crisis occurs. 

“The availability of this kind of service often makes the difference between a student staying in school, or dropping out.  Having someone on our campus who is so highly trained in the mental health needs of adolescents is reassuring to students, families and staff alike.” 

Finding support outside the classroom

Not only are kids and families supported during the school day, they are supported outside of the classroom.

Before the passage of the Affordable Care Art, children and families insured on public insurance were required to have a referral from the county Health Department in order to receive outpatient therapy. The change in the referral mechanism has been dramatic.  

“Prior to healthcare reform, only parents, doctors and teachers could make a referral for outpatient mental health services. Now that barrier has been removed so parents can simply call and make an appointment,” said Bettina Schempf, Executive Director at the Old Mill Center, a non-profit, outpatient facility that provides outpatient mental health services to roughly 500 children and families in the Willamette Valley.

In a similar preventative program with the Boys and Girls Club of Corvallis, the Old Mill Center teaches kids how to recognize and manage emotions. Within this group, the Old Mill Center has seen a 50% drop in kids being written up and at risk of being expelled. Additionally, the Old Mill Center behavioral specialists work alongside the Boys and Girls Club of Corvallis staff—typically college students—and provide practical future work force development.

“This is such a needed service in our community. We often consider social determinants or health, but we also need to think about social determinants of learning. When children regulate their emotions better, they can have an easier time learning,” said Schempf.

Partnerships benefiting our systems

One of the greatest benefits of the schools working with the health sector is bringing the multiple systems and sectors together to benefit the children and families living in our community.

“Without the collaboration between the school districts, non-profit social services partners and mental health prevention service providers, our community would be a several steps back because we wouldn’t be as effective in keeping these kids as safe and supported,” said Blatt.

“Because of our partnerships, we’re able to move in any direction we need to support students, parents, families and faculty. The level of care provided in and out of the classroom is 100% fluid and impactful.”