by Deborah Shanahan | University of Nebraska Public Policy Center
Nebraska schools across the state are taking advantage of millions in federal grant funds to better respond to students’ mental health needs.
“We’re seeing a good shift in schools in tackling mental health and suicide prevention, doing a lot of great things,” said Quinn Lewandowski, a research manager of the University of Nebraska Public Policy Center (PPC).
The PPC is a partner with the Nebraska Department of Education, the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services and regional service providers in writing proposals to obtain the funds, and then planning, implementing and evaluating the resulting programs. In some cases, the PPC provided coordination and leveraged the sharing of resources.
Some of the grants date back to 2018, but others are related to federal funding granted following the onset of COVID in 2020.
“Even in 2019, schools were trying to figure out how to support students’ mental health, but the pandemic brought the need to the forefront,” said Amber Hartsock, NDE’s state coordinator for school mental health efforts.
As students returned to school buildings, she said, it really became evident it was something schools needed to focus on.
Surveys nationally and in Nebraska indicated a growing number of children and adolescents exhibiting anxiety, depression and stress. Surveys also showed teachers feeling unprepared to meet those needs.
“Educators are with kids six, seven hours a day, and they’re seeing strong social and emotional declines,” said Mariella Resendiz Alvarado, NDE director of education partnership and support. “We’re making sure educators and families have resources available.”
The survey results and anecdotes led the NDE to use a share of its federal COVID relief funds for the School Mental Health Systems project.
The project involves training staff at each of Nebraska’s Educational Service Units, which then hold sessions for educators from districts and schools in their areas that choose to take part. The plan is that they will return to their home schools and share the knowledge with colleagues.
The NDE is working with the University of Nebraska Public Policy Center to measure the impact of the training launched in September 2021. Jennifer Farley, senior research manager at the PPC, said the evaluation results have been promising, showing that the program met participating schools’ needs.
“It complemented their existing programs and wasn’t seen as something new, which helped generate buy-in,” Farley said.
ESU trainers created diverse examples to fit rural and city schools and to consider whether a school was just beginning or well into identifying tiers of support it could offer for students.
Those in training, Farley said, “were able to customize the information they received and make it work best for their schools.”
More training sessions were held this summer, but a February report showed:
Sixty-four individuals representing 19 ESUs and districts were trained. They went on to train 423 individuals. 63 schools and districts were implementing plans with the potential to reach 37,000 students.
Before and after surveys showed statistically significant increases in knowledge among training participants.
Follow-up focus groups found great enthusiasm for the program and natural connections to some of the things schools and districts already were doing to support students’ social, emotional, and behavioral needs.
Hartsock said some districts are just getting started in addressing mental health and providing development for school staff, asking what supports they can put in place to help students. Some districts, she said, are further along, adding clinicians to staff and using online screening tools to determine levels of support needed by individual students and to flag any needs for referral to a mental health professional.
Levels of support could involve meeting with a school counselor, working on skills for emotional management or on peer social skills. Some schools are using small groups to focus on a certain social skill and practice with one another. Others are doing morning check-ins to gauge how students are feeling and connect them with the appropriate supports if needed.
Alvarado said several districts are looking at creating calm spaces in buildings or classrooms. They provide materials to help students identify that they’re not OK and need to take a five-minute break. The school provides a space so they’re able to self-regulate.
Other schools are investing in screeners, or online tools that ask students a series of questions to help identify if they are doing fine or, if they’re not, in what ways they’re not.
Alvarado said she knows of a district that has been able to meet individually with all students after screenings and to keep track of follow-ups – if there are any red flags, what’s the plan: do they need to be referred out for small group support or to a licensed mental health provider, and what’s the communication with a parent?
Mostly, Hartsock said, the feedback has been that the School Mental Health Project is timely.
“Mental health is at the forefront of everyone’s mind,” she said. “Teachers want to understand how they can help students be successful. They’re willing to put the work in. They see the benefit of this.”
Nebraska’s other school safety and mental health projects include:
Advancing Wellness and Resiliency in Education, known as AWARE I and II, and jointly undertaken by NDE and Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services. AWARE I sites are in Chadron, Hastings and South Sioux City. AWARE II has sites in Valentine, Lexington and Nebraska City. The program aims to improve school staffs’ ability to identify and respond to mental health needs, including depression, anxiety, suicide ideation and trauma. The project has led to expansion of mental health provider availability through hiring or contracting, professional development for faculty and staff and establishment of policies and practices that support students and families.
A Mental Health Awareness Training grant aimed at training educators in the evidence-based intervention of Psychological First Aid for Schools. In partnership with NDE, over the next four years 1,250 educators will be trained to identify students with mental health issues, promote mental health and appropriately responding to crises, including de-escalation. The PPC also produced a de-escalation video that has been posted to the Safe2Help and disaster mental health websites.
Suicide Prevention and Suicide Safe Schools. The PPC and NDE collaborated on updated resource guides for parents and schools dealing with suicide concerns. The guide offering resources for parents has been downloaded more than 1,200 times since its August release. A handbook for developing school prevention policies and procedures was released in November. A Youth, School and Families Suicide Prevention brochure has been translated into seven languages and distributed across the state. The project boasts a strong social media presence. Posters highlighting the 988 suicide and crisis helpline were printed and shared with all public and private middle and high schools across the state.
Expanding Childhood Behavioral Health. A three-part effort by DHHS to: increase professional development for early childhood educators related to mental health and social emotional well-being and development; increase the number of providers who, through continuing education, can serve youth mental health needs; and improve transitions between mental health care and school settings.
Disaster behavioral health response — school-based services. A follow-up to the Nebraska Strong effort formed to serve areas that experienced flooding in 2019. The program operated by Region 6 Behavioral Healthcare, collaborating with Region 3 Behavioral Health Services and Region 4 Behavioral Health System, from spring 2020 to fall 2022 placed licensed mental health providers, or services that could connect students with mental health providers, in suburban and rural schools, making it easier for families to access services because children didn’t need to be pulled out of school.