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Utah School District Illustrates How Outside Partnerships Can Attend to Students’ Mental Wellness Needs

“I’ve shared that probably the biggest ah-ha moment that I learned from the pandemic was really how many families we have that solely rely on the schools for mental health services,” explained Tobin Novasio, superintendent of the Lockwood School District in Lockwood, Mont., Saturday morning  at the AASA National Conference on Education in Nashville.

Novasio was joined on the panel titled “Improving School Culture With Mental Health Supports” by Gregory Hudnall, the founder and executive director of Hope Squad in Provo, Utah, and Michelle Bartsch,  director of programs and partnerships at Cook Center for Human Connection in Pleasant Grove, Utah, to discuss their roles in developing resources to combat the current mental health crisis in our school system.

In one unnamed school district interviewed by the Cook Center, 80 percent of students rely on schools for mental health services, 75 percent of students displayed moderate to severe symptoms of depression, 12 percent of students have planned to attempt suicide, and 3 percent attempted to take their own lives.

Hudnall’s company, Hope Squad, is a program that aims to reduce youth suicide through education, training and peer intervention. Students nominate their peers to become trained advocates that recognize signs of suicidal contemplation, and respectfully report any concerns to an adult. Their ultimate goal is to change school culture and conversation about mental illness.

In addition to peer Hope Squad members, the company also offers courses on mental health awareness, diversity and inclusion, and emotional well-being.

Novasio, as a school system leader, vouched for the necessity and effectiveness of the program. In opening the session, he recounted his experience advising students who ultimately committed suicide. He told the stories of a diverse group of young men and women whose only common trait was that they all took their own lives. He reported on his district’s transition to the Hope Squad program and the decrease in suicide attempts that followed.

Bartsch took the stage to talk about Cook Center for Human Connection’s partnership with ParentGuidance.org, an online resource that helps parents understand the issues impacting their children and how to offer support.

The mission of the company is not to replace therapy entirely, but to bridge the time gap between enrolling in therapy and the first appointment and to provide a resource for low-income families who cannot afford therapy.

The organization’s website hosts free family mental health nights, offers self-help courses for parents and an Ask a Therapist feature, which provides families with trained and supervised family coaches that are available for one-on-one calls every week and 24/7 text access. The website also provides professional development sessions for teachers who want to support their students.

Even though the statistics show that the mental health crisis requires immediate action, Hudnall is confident that if districts take enough action, they could actively limit the harm.

“You have the funding right now in your district for mental health support like you’ve never had. And I’ve been sitting in these meetings for 15 years,” said Hudnall.

(Ava Sjursen is a reporting intern for AASA’s Conference Daily Online and a junior at Harpeth Hall in Nashville.)

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