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Sto-Rox superintendent wants to see mental health initiative go statewide

By Elizabeth Perry


Sto-Rox Superintendent Megan Van Fossan has spearheaded a mental health initiative in the school district that she would like to take state-wide.


This year Van Fossan graduated from the Pennsylvania Education Policy Fellowship Program, which gave her the tools to impact state law.


“I believe all kids should be served well in public and we don’t do that when it comes to mental health,” Van Fossan said.


Currently, the district is supporting legislation that would require districts to screen students for mental health issues.


At times public policy decisions seem to be made “behind the magic curtain,” Van Fossan said. “We’re affected by public policy but we’re not involved in the discussion around public policy, especially in education."

Fossan

The district has drafted a “Universal Mental Health Screening Proposal” and circulated it among lawmakers, but at this time none have turned the proposal into legislation.


At Sto-Rox, Van Fossan said the district has doubled the number of support staff from four to eight to determine whether or not students could benefit from mental health care. The district also made sure to have a mental health professional in every single building in addition to a school counselor.


“Our services would be even better if we were screening all kids, so that is my goal for the 2023-24 school year,” Van Fossan said. Even if the legislation does not pass, Van Fossan said they would begin implementing universal screening in her district.

“Research has shown that when schools provide services on-site or have referral systems in place to link students to community-based sources of care, students are more likely to receive care,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.


“We’re able to pinpoint kids because we have relationships and when I say we, I’m part of that,” Van Fossan said.

In a school of 1,100 students, Van Fossan said the staff knows each child personally.


Van Fossan has been able to cut down the time between a student being identified as needing support, and them getting into treatment programs. Previously, kids would have to wait four to six weeks for an evaluation, and then an additional four to six weeks to actually get help. Now, Van Fossan said the turnaround for treatment is within 10 days.


Alexandria Gariepy is a district social worker at the Sto-Rox School District. One of Gariepy’s duties is to “oversee outside providers and assist in bringing outside agencies within the district to ensure student needs are being met.”


Gariepy has been on staff for about a year and helps direct students into the correct support system.


Now, more than ever, Gariepy said mental health screening is critical in the aftermath of COVID-19. With her previous work as a child abuse advocate, Gariepy has seen a “significant increase” in abuse related to the pandemic, because kids were forced into isolated spaces with their abusers during lockdowns. Afterward, when they’ve returned to school and a relatively safe space, she’s seen more and more “late disclosures” of abuse.


“I’ve noticed that many students are being brave,” Gariepy said.


Even children who did not suffer abuse are having increased feelings of depression, “persistent sadness,” hopelessness and are having difficulty socializing, Gariepy said.


Nearly 200 children were referred to services during the previous school year, Van Fossan said.


Since she’s been on board, they’ve implemented a grief support group to help students cope. In addition to traditional avenues of improving mental health, the district helps direct parents into programs that provide help with food or finding a job, and they have also expanded extra-curricular activities like flag football for students, which Gariepy said has been giving them a positive outlet.


Unfortunately, when it comes to mental health services Van Fossan said those traditional mental health supports are primarily provided through special education programs.

“You shouldn’t need to have an [Individualized Education Plan] to get appropriate services in mental health,” Van Fossan said.


She questioned why students are screened for weight, vision, hearing, and intellectual skills, yet there is a blind spot when it comes to mental health. Children often have to have a meltdown or experience a public tragedy for school officials to know they are in need of intervention.


“Screening saves kids. Literally saves kids,” Van Fossan said.


The CDC recommends screening for mental health issues in students, though it is not yet public policy.


The Sto-Rox proposal offers a grim statistic, “50% of all lifetime mental illness begins by age 14, and 75% by age 24, but the average delay between onset of mental illness symptoms and treatment is 11 years.”


Additionally, they say 117,000 children in Pennsylvania are diagnosed with major depression but 57,000 never get treatment, according to the Pennsylvania Hopeful Campaign.


While schools are legally required to have a school nurse for every 1,500 students, there aren’t any set numbers for school counselors, psychologists, or social workers.


This leaves schools that serve students in most need of those services without any mental health professionals.


Through simple screening, Van Fossan said school officials are able to say “here are kids who would benefit from a tier one or tier two intervention.”


To establish the program the proposal compiled by the district recommended screening could have a “sustainable funding stream” through Medicaid.


“The goal would be to leverage existing mental health grant funds federally where possible and to use existing resources but just direct them differently,” according to the proposal.


A pilot program would cost an estimated $4.5 million dollars over four years. The proposal cites a similar program in Illinois which cost $5 million and one in Ohio which cost $6.75 million.



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