Delaware schools win $9M grant to improve mental health services

Middle school students change classes (Jessica Kourkounis for WHYY, file)

Middle school students change classes (Jessica Kourkounis for WHYY, file)

Some schools in Delaware will use a $9 million federal grant to expand access to mental health services for students.

Awarded by the U.S. Department of Health, the dollars will fund Project DelAWARE, a partnership between the state’s Department of Education and Department of Services for Children, Youth and their Families.

The grant, which will be dispersed over five years, will support Colonial, Capital and Indian River school districts — about a fifth of the state’s overall public school enrollment.

The state plans to use the funding to increase awareness of mental health services and create a response system to help children in need. Additional in-school clinical staff will be hired, and there will be contracted support from outside providers.

Harvey Doppelt of the children’s department said the program will prevent young students from falling through the cracks.

A 2017 University of Delaware survey of Delaware students found more than 16 percent of high school and close to 18 percent of middle school students considered attempting suicide. More than 8 percent of high school students and more than 6 percent of middle school students said they actually attempted suicide.

“There are kids who are, in many cases, struggling, and there are ways of helping them. Many of the kids, particularly many of the Wilmington kids, have been exposed to community violence and other traumatic events that can affect their behavior and their functioning in general. Seeing people shot and die is not good for growing up,” Doppelt said.

“The first part of suicide is someone getting help. The majority of people who say they’ve tried suicide in the past year probably didn’t get treatment. They may not have even told anyone, so hopefully by reducing stigma and making treatment more easily accessible we can make more of these students and parents aware there is a problem that can be treated successfully and we can help you get access.”

Capital School District will use the funding to hire licensed clinical social workers to work directly with middle school students and their families, and occasionally connect them with outside agencies, Superintendent Dan Shelton said.

While the school system has guidance counselors, this is the first time it will utilize licensed clinical social workers whose main priority will be addressing behavioral health issues.

“In our elementary schools we have as part of the kids’ department family crisis specialists, and guidance counselors that can be used, and we can refer them outside. But then oftentimes it’s a matter of what kind of insurance does a kid have or not have, as to what kind of services, and somebody has to navigate that — but that’s not their expertise. So now we would have more direct ability to connect those services together and get a solid plan for the individual student and their family,” Shelton said.

“Once we get them where they’re going to feel as though they’re safe and comfortable and other outside influences distracting them are gone they should be more successful in accessing our curriculum.”

John Cooper, director of student services for Colonial School District, said while schools have a system in place to address behavioral health issues, it’s sometimes a juggling act.

“School psychologists are required to do all testing associated with students with [individualized education programs] in Special Ed, but school psychologists also provide crisis counseling and group counseling. Same with our school counselors, who participate in course selection and academic counseling, but also provide crisis counseling, ongoing school based counseling — but they have multiple tasks,” Cooper said.

“What we find, especially with mental health services, it’s really helpful to have people in our system who only have one focus. So part of what we’re able to use this grant for is to bring some people into our system who don’t have other responsibilities. The only responsibility is to provide behavioral health services.”

Cooper said while the district’s primary role is providing a healthy learning environment during the day, it also wants to help students develop skills for resilience and self-care. He said addressing the trauma students’ face outside of school will allow them to be successful in their academic environment.

“We need to do everything we can to help students be in the best position to participate in their academics, and have fun, and be happy and enjoy their time in school,” Cooper said.

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