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Program brings mental health services to county schools

Abilene Reflector-Chroncle - 4/10/2019

April 10-- Apr. 10--"We saved lives. We've prevented suicides."

That was the message Shelly Alderson presented to the Abilene Rotary Club recently regarding a pilot program addressing mental health and suicides of students.

"We got some help for kids that really needed help. We don't want that to happen in Abilene. We don't want that to happen anywhere. If we can get mental health services to the kids, if they are even thinking about it -- they may not have a plan but are thinking about it -- and we can recognize that, that's a huge success story."

A principal in the county recently walked into a bathroom and found a student there, said Glenna Phillips, administrative director of community support services with Central Kansas Mental Health.

"Your typical response would be 'Get back to class!' Instead the principal found out this kid was really struggling mental health wise and found the kid was actively suicidal," she said.

The student was hospitalized.

"We really feel like they saved a life that day," Phillips said.

The numbers

Susie Gassman, school social worker, and Alderson, liaison with Central Kansas Mental Health, said the program is implemented at all of the school districts in Dickinson County except Chapman High School, Rural Center Elementary, Enterprise Elementary, and Blue Ridge Elementary.

The figures of students involved was staggering: Abilene 125, Herington 65, Chapman 24, Solomon 18.

"In Herington we didn't expect that high of a number of referrals," Phillips said. "It is a high number and we will eventually have a full-time therapist there."

School officials agree depression and anxiety issues have escalated for students.

"They (therapists) help meet the needs of our students' growing issues such as depression, anxiety, grief/loss, suicide, etc.," said Cindy Gant, liaison for Chapman and Herington in the program. "There are many thoughts and opinions as to reasons these situations and issues are growing."

"We are seeing more needs than we have ever seen before," said Justin Coup, superintendent of the Solomon School District.

Suicide is the second-leading cause of death, behind unintentional injuries, in Kansas for those between the ages of 15 and 24.

Myth

"There used to be that myth to not talk about suicide because that will make them do it. That's just not true," Phillips said.

"What we want the community to recognize is that mental health has no lines. We see it from different races, different levels in income. It is not a poverty issue. It crosses all lines," Alderson said. "In Abilene we are amazed every single day of what we see and what we have to deal with. What we have to recognize is that as a community we are not going to be successful just dealing with it just in the school system, or dealing with a family. It takes a community effort."

The age that kids are attempting suicide or contemplating it is getting younger, she said.

"We are having more and more families coming through the door saying, 'Hey! My child is having some issues and we want to deal with it now.' We have had a 475 percent increase in emergency services in Dickinson County from last year," Phillips said. "That's huge."

Stress

"There are stressors out there: a lot of anxiety, a lot of depression," Alderson said. "It needs to be recognized. It needs to be treated and it's not going away."

Gassman said she suspects that much of the increase in anxiety and depression is because of social media.

"There is no filter. There's no face-to-face interaction. You don't have to face that person to have a conversation," Phillips said.

The "Keeping up with the Joneses" syndrome also factors in.

"You see all of these wonderful things on Facebook and Snapchat and that's just the prettiness. These kids really don't understand the dynamics of being a victim," she said.

Gassman said Dickinson County is the only rural district in the program.

"This initiative is very important to this district and we hope it continues," Alderson said.

The initial funding for the Abilene school district was $120,000.

"It's a good deal for Dickinson County," said state Rep. John Barker.

He said the program should be funded for two more years. However, it has not been officially approved.

"I was concerned that Central Kansas Mental Health did not have the staff to do this but apparently that has not been a problem. I am glad it is working out."

Phillips said there is a shortage of clinicians. Central Kansas Mental Health's community services is down a half of a position. Two therapists are working in the county and Phillips is expecting a third is being hired.

"This pilot grant helps provide the resources through therapists, case managers, wrap around meeting facilitators, etc.," Gant said.

Awareness

Phillips said there is an increased awareness that help for mental health issues is available.

She said 77 percent of youth before making a first suicide attempt had not reached out to any professionals or talked to families.

"They have had these thoughts. They have had these feelings but they had never reached out to anybody. They never knew they existed. That has been an issue," she said. "People are now finding out there is help and our numbers are increasing now.

"It's easily accessible now. People are understanding it's there. It's really a community partnership that we are addressing some of the needs of our kids," she said

The Center for Disease Control states that suicide rates in Kansas increased 45 percent.

Phillips said one in five adolescents have a mental health issue during the school year.

"That could be from increased stress, whether that is home, community or school, bullying, family problems, depression," she said.

Therapy at school

Alderson said therapy is available to kids and families at school.

"They don't have to leave the school during the day to go to Salina, Manhattan or Junction City to get these services. Parents also don't have to leave their jobs to take kids to therapy appointments," she said.

In addition to providing the therapists, Central Kansas Mental Health also provides social skills groups on a weekly basis at the elementary schools and at the middle school.

"We are starting to do family therapy in the school," Gassman said.

Students are referred to the program through therapy teams, families and the courts.

Students are only referred to the program with parental support.

Contact Tim Horan at editor@abilene-rc.com.

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