Delco unveils plan to address kids’ mental health crisis made ‘catastrophically worse’ during pandemic

A mother wearing a face mask adjusting a face mask on her son before he goes to school

A mother and child on their way to school during the pandemic (Sviatlanka.yanka/Big Stock)

An effort is underway to redesign the delivery of mental health services for school-age children in Delaware County. Delco District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer has unveiled the strategic plan for the new Delco Healthy Kids, Healthy Schools Initiative, which will address how behavioral health and substance abuse services are provided to kids.

“It has been deeply gratifying to witness the commitment of the individuals involved in this project to improving the mental and behavioral health services for our children,” Stollsteimer said in a statement released by his office Thursday.

The idea to revamp these services came from discussions between county officials and educators on how to more effectively utilize some funds from the Pennsylvania Safe School grant that are traditionally only used to improve the physical infrastructure of school campuses. County officials felt that it was time for a much-needed adjustment.

The initiative was done in conjunction with Delco educators, Delaware County Council, and Bloom Planning. While the working groups formed in February 2020, the research and evaluation phase began in January 2021 and ended just a few months later.

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Using a combination of surveys, interviews, focus groups, and landscape reviews, Bloom Planning was able to obtain a great deal of data. More than 6,000 students, 2,000 family members, and 600 school staff members across a majority of Delco school districts participated in the surveys.

“As the work has progressed, it has been both dismaying and affirming to learn of the recent assessments by both the US Surgeon General and the Centers for Disease Control, both of which identified the same issue that we did back in the summer of 2020 – we have a growing mental health crisis confronting our children and young people,” Stollsteimer said in a statement. “While this crisis predates the pandemic, it has been made catastrophically worse by the stress of the last two years.”

Since then, a planning team of county stakeholders including elected officials, school district leadership, local community groups, and residents has convened to parse through the data gathered from students, community members, educators, and parents to come up with a vision.

The vision they came up with is rather comprehensive. At Wednesday night’s Delco council meeting, Stollsteimer alongside Bloom Planning’s founder and principal, Ingrid Boucher, offered up a presentation of the long research process.

“As Attorney General [Josh] Shapiro said, eventually we’re gonna need a mental health counselor in every school and I think we’re gonna have to talk to our policymakers in Harrisburg about getting more resources, but we wanted to see in this collaborative effort, what we could possibly do to address the problem here with the resources we currently have,” Stollsteimer said.

Boucher said that detailed action and accountability plans have been created in key areas such as sustainability, partnership planning, equity, innovation and growth, and data practice.

“Both our desk research and our stakeholder input found that access to services, quality of programming, cultural appropriateness, funding and stigma about mental health and behavioral health, and substance abuse treatment were core needs for Delaware County,” Boucher said. “This is an important pivot — now the work of doing hopefully begins.”

In terms of plan highlights, the goal is to hire a coordinator to oversee the implementation of the plan, increase school partnerships focusing on mental and behavioral health as well as substance abuse services, increase service support and professional development in school, and create a publicly accessible dashboard, among other things.

By 2030, if the implementation of the plan is successful, county officials hope that all of Delco’s youth will have equitable access to “highly effective, evidence-based prevention and intervention services” addressing mental, behavioral, and substance abuse issues.

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The Delaware County Department of Human Services will house the plan and work on the initiatives.

“We also anticipate giving routine updates to counsel as it’s progressing where we are as far as the status. Again, I think this is a great opportunity for the county. I think it’s great for human services and also for the kids that we serve,” said Sandy Garrison, director of the Delaware County Department of Human Services, during the presentation.

Monica Taylor, chair of the Delaware County Council, participated in the steering committee for the project, and she said that the county is facing a “serious crisis” as it faces mounting mental, behavioral, and substance abuse issues due to the lack of supports.

“We need this and it will truly benefit our families. And so I look forward to moving this forward and working with our Department of Human Services to implement this program and work with our school districts and work with our families and communities,” Taylor said.

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