Mental health grant aids ‘whole child’

OLYMPIA — On the morning of Oct. 24, Marysville schools Superintendent Becky Berg traveled to Olympia to begin mapping out how the district would use its share of a federal grant to bring mental health services to campuses.

As she prepared to sit down with peers from districts in Battle Ground, Shelton and the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, she got the phone call telling her of an active shooter at Marysville Pilchuck High School.

She departed quickly, leaving a room of educators silenced by the stunning news.

To a person they realized the tragic irony: The grant that brought them together is aimed at training teachers, staff and parents to recognize when a student is stressed and funding services to help them get through it.

“This is why we do this work,” said Jodie DesBiens, director of behavioral health and prevention for Northwest Educational Services District 189, who was in the room that day. “A lot of kids are hurting. A lot of kids need these services.”

The five-year grant, called Project AWARE (or Advancing Wellness and Resilience in Education), was awarded Oct. 6 by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. It provides $1.95 million a year to be shared by the three school districts and the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.

The money is for programs and policies aimed at making schools safer and increasing awareness of substance abuse and mental health issues among youth.

Dixie Grunenfelder, OSPI’s student assistance program coordinator, said the first year will be spent diagramming exactly how the money will be used in each district. Existing programs could be expanded and new ones started. Additional staff will be hired.

Today there are no school-based mental health services in Snohomish County, said DesBiens, who will oversee administration of the grant in the Marysville School District. The educational services district encompasses schools in Snohomish and four other counties.

A portion will pay for four prevention and intervention counselors and at least one mental health specialist for the district, she said. They could be deployed to campuses as early as next spring, though more likely it will be the start of the 2015 school year, she said.

In addition, each year money will be spent to provide mental health first-aid training to 124 adults who deal with students in schools and the community. The hope is they will be better able to detect when a student is experiencing a problem for which counseling or other forms of treatment will help.

When work began on the grant application several months ago, officials with the ESD contacted Berg about getting Marysville involved — not because something was wrong but because the district had already been promoting positive student behavior and a safe and supportive learning environment, Grunenfelder said.

“They were poised and ready to take a systemic look at mental health services,” she said.

Berg said they were excited to participate.

“We know students need to excel academically, but there are a lot of things that go on outside school which can affect their health, well-being and classroom success,” she said.

“Our concern is with the whole child,” she said. The grant “resonates with our values and how we want to be serving our students.”

One goal is to create programs and services that can be replicated in other districts and communities, officials said.

No one can say whether the high school shooting could have been prevented had services envisioned in the grant already been in place.

“Mental health issues are not always transparent,” Grunenfelder said. “They can be just below the surface. If we had more people trained, maybe we could see the signs earlier. This is an opportunity for the future.”

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com.

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