PSD outlines mental health improvements with focus on community partnership and staffing

·5 min read

Poudre School District leadership outlined their plan to prioritize mental health and wellbeing for students and staff in the coming year at Tuesday's Board of Education meeting, placing the primarily focus on increasing mental health staff and improving community partner relationships.

“Mental health has always been a priority in PSD but is now more important than ever,” said Ruben Chacón, director of student services. “Given the disruptions in feelings of safety over the past two years our students are feeling a greater need for support and we must respond.”

A mental health needs assessment given to providers in the district found that the top three non-academic concerns these adults had for students were the inability to self-regulate, anxiety and depression, and an increase in suicidal ideation.

“In past years, more students came to counseling regarding troubles with peers than anything else. This year anxiety has been the number one reason they walk into our counseling offices,” one provider responded.

Suicide risk assessments have also increased of late, according to data presented by Tyrell Hirchert, mental health and prevention coordinator.

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In just the past fall semester, 254 suicide risk assessments were conducted, compared to 169 in all of last school year. Half of these assessments are at the high school level, and 25% result in a referral to a crisis center or emergency room, Hirchert said.

Superintendent Brian Kingsley spoke to the importance of the mental health during the meeting, saying it is one of the district's urgent priorities and that there is "no time to waste."

“I think we all collectively, including myself, have to raise our accountability of checking in with our children, listening to them when they tell us how they are and speaking to each other adult to adult to figure out how we can collectively partner to be better advocates, to be better champions and better servants to our precious children in our community,” said Kingsley.

Statewide and nationally, people are calling for more attention on students' mental health.

Prior to the pandemic, suicide was already the leading cause of death for Colorado's youth. Last year, Children’s Hospital Colorado declared Colorado in a state of emergency due to its youth mental health crisis and, at the national level, the Children's Hospital Association declared a national emergency for children's mental health.

Related: Colorado is offering children 3 free counseling sessions. Here's how to sign up.

The four main gaps identified by PSD's team that need to be immediately addressed to improve the district’s mental health response were increasing mental health staffing and role clarity, strengthening community partnerships, increasing professional development and clarifying PK-12 social and emotional learning curricula.

When determining the areas of improvement, Chacón and his team held listening sessions and surveyed stakeholders — students and providers — on what areas for improvement existed.

One student surveyed in the process said that “whatever number of students you think are struggling, that number should be doubled or even tripled.”

Other student feedback showed the need to expand wellness teams and providers in PSD schools, saying the counselors who do work with students are often “stretched too thin” to check back in on students who reached out for help.

Chacón showed various PSD mental health provider to student ratios — from school counselors to specialists to nurses — and all were higher than the nationally recommended ratios. To achieve the nationally recommended models, he said the district would need to invest $11.3 million annually.

“There’s simply not enough trained professionals to help the students,” said Megan Jones, a PSD student who assisted in the presentation. She recommended utilizing a peer-to-peer counseling program as a more accessible and less intimidating option for students.

Related: Children's Hospital Colorado, others call for $150 million to improve youth mental health

Community partners told PSD they hoped to redefine partnerships with systematic memorandums of understanding to clarify their roles in the system of care, Chacón said. They also wanted to be more fully integrated into school teams and strengthen communication.

“We’re blessed to have a number of community partners in our community who are always willing to step up,” Chacón said. “How do we as a system also have some of that skin in the game to support those different roles and partnerships?”

In terms of social emotional learning curricula, the assessment found that the district was using more than 29 different social emotional learning curricula, something Kingsley later said “is not good fiscal stewardship.”

“Not only does that not allow us to be strategic in financing one or two high-quality curricula, it introduces 29-plus different languages to our teachers, to our parents, to our students,” he said. “The charge not just for staff but for us together is to create community coherence around this work.”

To move forward with the goals, the team will start work on evaluating the budget and programs they currently have in place for mental health to see what is and isn’t working and where money can be reallocated. They will also look at implementing a school health services Medicaid program.

Chacón and Hirchert outlined what they hope to do over the next twelve months, noting there’s a lot of work ahead.

From now to June, they will develop a mental health and suicide policy, coordinate community partnerships and agreements for after-hours services, recruit a social emotional learning advisory team and expand restorative practices and data-driven information collection systems.

The students who helped present the mental health plan said one of the most pressing matters the district needs to address with regard to mental health is simply awareness and increasing students’ knowledge of the resources available to them.

At the start of the next school year, Hirchert hopes to establish student wellness teams at secondary schools, have curricula options identified and address the mental health support staffing ratios.

“This work cannot be done in 18 months, this is an ongoing process that we will need to continue to fund and support as a school district going forward,” he said.

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Molly Bohannon covers education for the Coloradoan. Follow her on Twitter @molboha or contact her at mbohannon@coloradoan.com. Support her work and that of other Coloradoan journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today.

This article originally appeared on Fort Collins Coloradoan: PSD outlines approach to improving student mental health

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