Mental health programs in Denver schools face funding cliff

Mental health programs in Denver schools face funding cliff

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When 50 students at Denver’s George Washington High School were flagged on a survey as being at “extremely high risk” for mental health issues, social worker Sarah Hartman was able to examine the 50 students and provide them with They provide services.

Hartman and others said this is rare given the surge in workloads for most school social workers and psychologists, and is only possible because Hartman is a pilot program that launched in 2021 As part of the program, the program initially added mental health providers to 10 Denver schools.

The program is designed to help the majority of students who do not see a school psychologist or social worker regularly. These providers are busy serving students with disabilities who are legally entitled to services, and they often don’t have time to help other students struggling with depression, grief and developmental trauma during the pandemic.

Hartman offered mental health services to 50 students, only five of whom declined.

“Kids would say, ‘Miss, I have an anxiety attack,'” Hartman said in an interview. “When you ask them if they need help, they want help.”

But that help may soon disappear.

The pilot program is funded by temporary federal pandemic relief funding called ESSER. The program expanded to 31 schools this year at a cost of $3.4 million due to a merger with an existing Denver Public Schools program focused on substance abuse prevention.

But ESSER funding is set to expire this fall, although federal officials recently announced it could be extended if school districts use the funds for certain efforts, such as tutoring. Facing a possible funding cliff, mental health providers are trying to maintain a program they say delivers on DPS’s empty promise to do better in mental health.

In the meantime, the district is evaluating whether it has the ability to do so. A spokesperson said in a statement that the district “is studying the program’s benefits/impact on student achievement and the feasibility of maintaining the program’s status quo.”

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“How fair is it to identify a problem but not have the resources to fix it?” Joe Walden, a social worker for the program at the Hill Arts and Sciences School District, asked the school board Monday. “This is a huge moral dilemma for me.”

A group of providers in what DPS calls the Prevention and Treatment Specialists (PTS) program pleaded with board members this week to find sustainable funding after ESSER expires. They shared a spreadsheet with students that contained more than 100 supportive comments solicited from other school psychologists, social workers, teachers, parents and students.

“She helps me calm down when I’m angry,” one sophomore wrote of the school’s provider, according to the spreadsheet also shared with Chalkbeat. “She taught me to let it out by crying when I needed to. Emotions, that’s okay.”

One fourth-grade student wrote that the school’s providers taught them about “safe touching and who can see private parts.” One fifth-grade student wrote that they told providers about their mother’s abusive boyfriend and drug and alcohol use. “She helped me make sense of all these memories and experiences,” the student wrote.

One East High student wrote that without the counseling support they received, “I don’t know how much I would have been able to attend last year because of my anxiety.”

Maria Hite, a PTS social worker at North High School, keeps a box of fidget toys and a mini Zen garden in her softly lit office where students can trace handfuls in the sand while talking. Little rake.

An educator at the school wrote that PTS teams at Haight and North “provide support to students in ways that our school mental health teams are not equipped to do,” adding that traditional psychologists and social workers “have Overwhelmed” is. “

District statistics show that during the 2021-22 and 2022-23 school years, PTS providers conducted one-on-one therapy with 415 students and 783 students in group therapy. More than 80 percent of its students are black or Latino, and 83 percent are from low-income families—a rate higher than the district average.

These providers also teach suicide prevention courses to more than 2,400 students and courses on coping with stress and anxiety or the dangers of vaping, drinking and drug use to more than 17,000 students. If a student is caught using drugs on campus, PTS providers can provide counseling and intervention as an alternative to out-of-school suspension.

School psychologists and social workers are in high demand in DPS, and PTS providers are not worried about finding jobs if the program ends. But they worry they will once again be bogged down in the paperwork-heavy, crisis-ridden job of serving high-needs and disabled students, while the students they now serve will be ignored.

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“How do you tell a kid, ‘I don’t have time?'” Walden said.

Melanie Asmar is Chalkbeat’s Colorado bureau chief. Contact Melanie: [email protected].

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