City Connects fills the mental health service gap

Kirsten Rene, Despina Petsagourakis, and Anna Hamilton

“We wanted to look at the students that are often missed, students who are in what is known as the mental health service gap. They aren’t being identified and they aren’t receiving services,” Despina Petsagourakis explains.

To do this, Petsagourakis, a graduate student at Boston College’s Lynch School of Education, and her fellow graduate students Kirsten Rene and Anna Hamilton, were part of a team that conducted research on 6,000 students in 15 high-poverty elementary schools in Springfield, Mass.

“The goal is to see if the prevention and intervention system and the community collaboration and coordination that City Connects involves would address students’ needs and deliver support.”

The unmet need is considerable. The poster explains that, “Seventy-five percent of children in need of mental health services do not receive them, with disparities in service provision existing particularly for marginalized populations.”

To show the impact of City Connects, Petsagourakis, Rene, and Hamilton have essentially created a map of mental health service delivery in Springfield’s schools. They presented a poster of their findings last November at the annual meeting of the Massachusetts Psychological Association.

As the poster explains, Springfield’s City Connects coordinators connected students to 4,320 mental health services. Specifically:

• 70% of services were offered in schools and 30% were offered in community settings

• 49% of all services were delivered to individuals and 51% were delivered to groups/families

• of school-based services, 86% were delivered by school-provided clinical staff and 14% by community-provided clinical staff

• the majority of mental health services were provided to students who are at the Tier 2 (mild/moderate) level of holistic risk, and

• students in Tier 3 received more individualized mental health services

In other words, City Connects helps schools see all of their students’ mental health needs. This enables schools to help students in acute distress and help children by detecting their needs at an earlier stage, such as when a teacher tells a coordinator about a student who is anxious, and the coordinator engages the family and connects the student to appropriate services that are preventive rather than reactive.

Researchers and clinicians can draw a number of take-home lessons from the research. One lesson: Seeing the big picture is crucial. Hamilton says:

“It’s important to look at students more holistically, considering not just their academic and behavioral performance, but also looking at their health, family, and other domains that affect functioning and success in school. Once you start conceptualizing students in this broader way, it becomes a lot easier to start considering what services could really benefit them.”

Rene says, “People are interested in how the model addresses every kid and not just the kids with the highest needs. They’re interested in the system City Connects puts in place to connect these kids to resources.”

Petsagourakis says the City Connects model “encourages schools to re-evaluate students periodically,” something City Connects does at the beginning and end of each school year using data “to individualize thinking about students.”

Schools that follow the example of seeing each student holistically could then have staff members provide services such as running social skills groups, providing one-on-one counseling, or connecting students to community-based mental health providers.

“We want school professionals to recognize that once they identify students’ needs, they don’t have to meet all these needs by themselves. They can work with community partners.”

The three will continue to share the poster at upcoming conferences, and, as Rene says, they’ll continue to make a larger point:

“Mental health is really only a snapshot of what City Connects focuses on. We could do the same poster for physical health or any other domain of development. City Connects’ holistic review allows coordinators to provide tailored and comprehensive services and supports in many areas. 

“City Connects is a good example of what can happen for kids when schools implement systematic and integrated programs. Service gaps are filled, and children thrive.”

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