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Mental-health pilot program succeeds; more funding needed locally

A few years ago, the leaders of Stafford Schools USD 349 believed some of their students could benefit from a state-sponsored pilot program geared to youngsters with mental-health issues.

Turns out, they were right.

The Stafford school district is in its third year of participation in the Mental Health Intervention Team (MHIT) project. It is one of several districts that became involved during the infancy of the program, which has shown positive results, said Wendy Lockwood, program development director at The Center for Counseling & Consultation in Great Bend.

Locally, MHIT is a partnership between the Stafford Schools and The Center, which serves Stafford, Barton, Pawnee and Rice counties.

Statewide, the program allows school districts and community mental health centers to address challenges that are part of everyday life for some young people. Services are provided on-site at the schools.

It all began in 2018 but is now experiencing some growing pains in Stafford.

“The state didn’t add funding to expand this year – neither for the school or for The Center,” Lockwood explained. “The funding remained at the previous allocation but we need more staff to meet the ever-growing needs.”

The Legislature determines the funding from year to year and will probably discuss it in the upcoming legislative session, Lockwood noted.

“This program has been extremely successful in Stafford and other school districts around the state,” she said. “It provides a way for us to identify needs and address them – even during the summer and other breaks from school.”

Statewide statistics indicate that more than 70 percent of the students improved their school attendance; more than 71 percent improved their behavior at school; and more than 69 percent improved their academics.

“These are remarkable numbers and we must continue meeting students’ needs, which don’t vanish when funding isn’t there,” Lockwood said. “The needs just go un-met, which leaves the schools with more challenges.”

The Center provides therapists and a case manager, while working closely with the school liaison. Services include case management, psycho-social groups and therapy sessions.

“Case management provides behavioral-health intervention and helps with social skills that are age appropriate,” Lockwood noted. “Services help children and families with behavior challenges that can impact the learning environment. Support with managing behavioral disruptions in the classroom also is offered.”

The Stafford liaison is Destiny Johnson, social worker, for pre-k toddlers up to high school seniors.

“We could not have asked for a better partner than Destiny Johnson,” Lockwood commented. “Stafford has been ideal to work with; we have a very strong partnership.”

As of mid-December, 49 Stafford students have been involved in MHIT in one way or another. Thirty-three are now actively involved. The population of the district is about 227.

“It is evident that MHIT is needed because most of the students have shown improvement in at least one area of concern, which enables them to be successful inside and outside the classroom,” Johnson said. “But, we have a significant portion of our population with high needs.

“For example, many live in poverty, and have traumatic backgrounds, mental-health concerns or challenging behaviors. With all of these concerns, we recognized that we needed support inside the school.”

These are the reasons the school district applied for the MHIT grant a few years ago.

Even though the Stafford program has reported a lot of success, “it continues to be a struggle to adequately serve the number of students that could benefit,” Johnson said. “With the combination of high needs and current staff shortages, it has been difficult for The Center to obtain and retain qualified personnel.

“The shortages make it especially difficult for them to designate more case managers or therapists solely to our schools.”

The district has Johnson and one counselor to address mental-health issues. “We do our best to serve our kids but it is easy to get bogged down. We do a lot, and yet, it is not enough to fill the needs.”

Johnson also noted that MHIT breaks down barriers for families by providing on-site access to services.

“These families desperately need the support they receive from the school and The Center. They would not be able to receive this support if they had to find information on their own or travel to other towns for appointments,” she explained. “MHIT allows much easier access to services, which is crucial for success.”

Mother of three recommends mental-health program

Amanda Wells’ three children were having a difficult time with anxiety, depression and other concerns. Some of those concerns have been alleviated thanks to the Mental Health Intervention Team (MHIT) program at Stafford Schools USD 349 and The Center for Counseling & Consultation in Great Bend.

(See adjacent story for more information.)

“My kids have gone through a lot of issues in our single-parent home,” Wells said. “They have been in the program at school for two years and I would recommend it to other parents who have concerns about their children’s mental health and negative behaviors.

“In addition to anxiety and depression, one of my girls has ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) and Oppositional Defiant Disorder,” Wells said. “The program has helped her come out of her shell and learn how to treat her peers.

“She had been defiant and wouldn’t listen to anyone,” she continued. “The program helps her today and will help her in the long run too.”

The other two children, who have anxiety and depression, see a counselor and case manager weekly.

“They also have group sessions,” Wells noted. “This has allowed them to socialize and interact better with their peers. They are a lot better, thanks to the program.”

Wells also pointed out that her son recently lost his 33-year-old dad to COVID. “The case manager has really been helping my son. I am very thankful for this program; it helps my kids get through the day.”