Supporting mental health in schools

Partnership bolsters school mental health support systems and helps identify students who need help.

As identified in a report by the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, there is a high level of depressive symptoms among Utah’s students. Is there a way to address these symptoms? Can resources be expanded amidst a current mental health care provider shortage? For Regence BlueCross BlueShield of Utah, its parent company Cambia Health Solutions and associate professor in the College of Education Aaron Fischer, the answers are yes. With a $100,000 gift from Cambia and matching funds from Huntsman Mental Health Institute (HHMI), Fischer and his U-TTEC Lab along with partners at Utah State University (USU) are supplementing existing resources in Utah schools to ensure youth have access to the mental health supports they need.

Tune into Fox 13 News during the 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. newscasts on Dec. 16, 2021, to hear more about Fischer’s program and again on Dec. 17 between 1-2 p.m. on The Place.

Of course, mental health needs and the resources to support those needs vary across Utah schools and districts. “Our program is scalable and customizable, meeting schools and students where they’re at,” says Fischer. “Through weekly synchronous meetings or professional learning webinars, [which can be accessed whenever there is an opening in the staff’s schedule], we help schools bolster their school mental health system and identify students who need support.” After identifying mental health needs, schools provide a matching level of service, whether individual counseling, problem-solving, conflict resolution or building resilience. “We’re not handing schools a template and saying, ‘This will work for you’; our program works by optimizing resources the schools already have. What works for urban schools may not work for rural schools, and what works for larger schools may not work for smaller schools, and so on.”

Fischer’s program is also unique in that it uses a strengths-based screening system. Using Co-Director and USU faculty member Tyler Renshaw’s Student Subjective Wellbeing Questionnaire (SSWQ), educators assess student needs and connections with their school environment and learning culture. Fischer and his team use the SSWQ screening tool to identify early indicators before more symptoms appear. The program is also using social media to build community and enable collaboration within schools and across districts. Such networks are essential in rural areas where mental health care provider shortages tend to be the most severe.

Another unique element of the program is continuity of care. Care providers work in teams that include a primary care provider, a community mental health provider and other specialists as needed. “The future of care is here, and it requires an interdisciplinary and collaborative approach,” says Fischer, “and that’s what we’re doing here: Collaborating with school, families and health care providers to support Utah’s children.”

“Utah’s educators are resilient and hardworking,” says Dean Nancy Songer of the College of Education. “Aaron’s work enhances a team approach in schools to support Utah’s children and youth in academic development and wellbeing. I am proud of Aaron’s work in this area, and I consider it representative of the innovation, student-focused, educator-supported type of work we do at the college”

“It is thrilling to see the results of this project,” says Peggy Maguire, president of the Cambia Health Foundation. “Increasing access to school-based mental health supports for students and their families aligns perfectly with our focus on resilient children and families. We have been proud to partner in these efforts to support whole-person health and improve wellbeing in the communities we serve every day.”

Parents and educators can find resources here.

About Cambia Health Solutions

Cambia Health Solutions, headquartered in Portland, Oregon, is dedicated to transforming health care. We put people at the heart of everything we do to make the health care system more economically sustainable and efficient for people and their families. Our company reaches millions of Americans nationwide, including more than 3.1 million people in the Pacific Northwest enrolled in our regional health plans. To learn more about us, visit CambiaHealth.com or Twitter.com/Cambia.

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