School district adds positions to address mental health

Two local schools have added counselors to their staff whose sole role is to address the mental health of students.

 

The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District is one of three school districts in Alaska that have added positions at alternative schools using funds from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, or SAMHSA, Project AWARE (Advancing Wellness and Resilience in Education) grant.

“It is kind of a CPR for mental health,” said Department of Education and Early Development Education Specialist II Sharon Fishel, who oversees Project AWARE in Alaska.

Alaska is one of 20 states that received the Project AWARE grant this year, Fishel said.

The competitive grant is applied for by the state and targets alternative schools, where students are at a higher risk for stress and may need more assistance addressing mental health and finding community resources, Fishel said. The total available funding is $9.1 million to be used over a five-year cycle, she said.

Seventy-five percent of the money will go toward putting counselors in Anchorage, Mat-Su and Kenai Peninsula schools, Fishel said.

Long-time school district counselors Patti Lawyer, who works at Kenai Alternative, and Agusta Lind, who works at Homer Flex, transitioned into the new positions at the start of the 2015-2016 school year.

“The grant has two parts to it,” Lind said. “One part is working in the schools and being available full time, and the other is streamlining referral processes in the community.”

Lind said their roles are a little different than that of a traditional counselor. They work in the schools during the day, but are also available after hours, acting as a liaison between parents, students and the community, she said.

Lind and Lawyer said they are still developing how exactly to carry out their duties for the two new positions. Both have worked for more than a decade in the school district and agree there is a need for more targeted intervention, awareness programs and resources to be available for students.

Building relationships with students, realizing a student’s needs and finding the most effective resources to connect them with is the short-term goal, Lawyer said. By doing so, in the long run, students will be more likely to succeed at school and thereafter, and handle stress productively, she said.

Lawyer said she is already planning courses, such as CPR, which she believes will help students, especially those who are expecting children, by preparing them for potential medical issues their children may have. She and Lind will also be teaching classroom courses about issues like substance abuse, depression and suicide prevention to help students be more aware of their own issues, and therefore more likely to ask for help if they are experiencing emotional stress, she said.

To receive the grant money every year, the two are required to train 125 community members in Mental Health First Aid or Youth Mental Health First Aid, two SAMHSA programs designed to raise awareness on the local level, as well as making the subject less “taboo,” Lawyer said. Training sessions will be eight hours long, and tailored specifically for the communities they will be taught in, she said.

Kenai Alternative Principal Loren Reese said he is thrilled to have the additional resource available to his students. He said he sees the position as fitting a variety of needs.

The alternative school has a higher volume of students dealing with mental health issues, who need an extra bridge to community assistance, Reese said. It also helps parents find resources to help their children, he said.

“There (are) nine of us really working and truly looking at the kids and helping them with mental health wellness as they need it,” Lawyer said.

Reach Kelly Sullivan at kelly.sullivan@peninsulaclarion.com.

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