Levy dollars: New mental health services planned

Levy dollars: New mental health services planned
Posted on 02/04/2020
Tahoma School District’s success with a middle school mental health and wellness program funded through a King County grant is inspiring plans to keep it in place and expand to more students.

The program, called SBIRT (Screening, Brief Intervention and Referral To services), is funded through King County’s Best Start for Kids program. Tahoma was awarded a three-year grant that began last school year and recently applied for and received additional grant funds. SBIRT pays for two people, one at each middle school, to work with students. The SBIRT coordinators have contacted every eighth-grade student and have screened more than half of them to identify and assess issues or conditions that might be causing anxiety, or could influence students to use drugs or alcohol or to harm themselves.

“We’re getting data that confirms we have a need,” said Tracy Krause, a Health and Fitness Content Specialist for the district who helps administer SBIRT. “It’s been eye opening.”

Krause said nearly half of the eighth-grade students who went through full SBIRT screening and contact had some level of anxiety, with about 11 percent showing severe anxiety. Those numbers include students who were not showing outward signs of anxiety.

Maple View Middle School Counselor Betty Bernstein said SBIRT “has been terrific. They are identifying kids who don’t ask for help themselves.”

Tahoma wants to continue providing SBIRT even after the King County grant expires. Krause said the school district will need a new funding source for SBIRT when the grant expires. Local funding would come from the Educational Programs and Operations levy, since the state does not provide funding for SBIRT or other mental health programs. “Levy dollars will help sustain this program beyond the grant,” he said.

The district also is looking at ways to further expand mental health services to students, such as by adding school counselors. The district and City of Maple Valley plan to co-fund a shared position that would help coordinate mental health services for the city and school district. Levy funds would support the district’s contribution.

Two mental health professionals who volunteer time to help the school district plan and coordinate student mental health services said they have seen the success that SBIRT has had, and are hopeful that the district can build on it.

David Downing is Chief Operating Officer for Youth Eastside Services, overseeing clinical counseling, substance abuse, and outreach efforts. Downing lives in Maple Valley and volunteers to help Tahoma expand and reshape how it provides mental health services to students.

National statistics indicate that 20 percent of students have mental health issues, but only a small percentage of those students are receiving assistance. Downing said that students suffering from anxiety and depression can’t perform as well academically.

“Schools are not actually able to educate kids unless these supports are in place,” he said, referring to mental health support. He endorses Tahoma’s efforts to expand upon SBIRT and to work with the City of Maple Valley and mental healthcare providers toward a community-based approach to mental wellness. “We do have an opportunity here,” he said.

Carrie Erickson, a marriage and family therapist who works in Maple Valley and Bellevue, also is working with Tahoma to help improve the district’s mental health services. Erickson got more involved with the district last school year when the community was reeling from the deaths of two students and a former student, each of whom died by suicide.

She said the district has recognized that it must find new ways to identify and assist students who are struggling with mental health issues.

“What we were doing wasn’t working and we had to do something differently,” she said “Now we move forward to find out what can work better.”

Erickson said the district’s Future Ready initiative provides the academic path for students, but there needs to be recognition and support for what she calls “Now Ready.” Students need social and emotional support to be successful academically, she said.

“These levy funds will help provide opportunity to help with our kids’ EQ, their emotional intelligence,” she said.
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