Oregon students and school staff are receiving expanded mental health services from the Oregon Department of Education.
A federally funded project, called The Strengthening Mental Health in Education initiative, aims to improve the mental health of Oregon students.
The $5.5 million initiative comes at a time when a recent report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation shows the number of Oregon children experiencing anxiety or depression has increased.
B Grace Bullock, senior mental health officer with the Department of Education, says that the recent initiative is part of a series from recent years in response to feedback from students, families, caregivers and school staff about the need to support mental health.
The initiative began when Oregon was selected by the National School Administrators Association to collaborate on statewide mental health infrastructure.
“The first step of this initiative which included looking at the current landscape and trying to identify where the strength and the challenges and gaps and opportunities are,” Bullock said.
One goal of the initiative is to increase Mental health literacy; knowledge of ways to improve mental health.
The state implemented this through Oregon Classroom WISE, an online educational tool accessible to all Oregon residents. Classroom WISE is a digital suite that provides resources on improving mental health and supporting students in distress.
Community care specialists and school employees also get professional learning opportunities through the initiative.
“There are many who feel as though they would like to have a little bit more background in things like how to work with individuals who are experiencing stress or how to create safe and inclusive schools,” Bullock said.
The program would train staff members looking to improve skills related to mental health support.
The initiative also implements a Community Care Project, which includes four school districts, the largest being the Hillsboro School District.
Francesca Sinapi, equity, access and engagement officer with the district, said that community care specialists will be assigned to three elementary schools with some of the most diverse populations in the state.
“What we have found in the past is that some of our diverse cultures, due to their cultural background, don’t have a full understanding of what mental health services can provide for their students because of the shadow of darkness that comes with mental health,” Sinapi said.
Chelsea Holcomb, director of child and family behavioral health at the Oregon Health Authority, said the exact reason for an increase in mental health issues amongst children is unknown, but the Casey Foundation report finds that the COVID-19 pandemic played a role.
The state is implementing programs in response to student feedback in order to expand mental health services.
Holcomb said one way of doing so is by providing non-clinical services.
“In our conversations with youth and young adults is that not every youth and young adult wants a therapist,” Holcomb said, “And so one of the things that we’ve been trying to do is put increased funding into peer-delivered services.”
These include in-home behavioral health treatment, response and stabilization services, crisis and transition services, and free access to the Uplift program through Youth Era.
Despite an increase in services, not enough people in the state are working in behavioral health — or they are leaving the field.
“This system was already in somewhat of a crisis before the pandemic,” Holcomb said.
In response to the shortage, the health authority received funds from the state to work with federal partners to recruit more employees.