Currently, there is a massive mental health crisis among students. The need is so pressing that President Biden called for increasing mental health services in schools during his recent State of the Union address.
Students who are referred for counseling often end up having their names put on long waiting lists, which was the case in Salem, Mass.
“A lot of the community partners that we would typically go to have waitlists that are weeks or sometimes months long,” Mia Riccio, Salem’s City Connects Program Manager, says. “The access just isn’t there. It’s especially hard for families who are under- or uninsured.”
To meet this need, Salem’s City Connects program is working with community partners to offer help more quickly by providing tele-mental health services.
Since 2016, Salem has deliberately taken a citywide approach toward meeting children’s needs, and last year, the city formed a Mental Health Task Force. At the time, as the local news source Patch media explains, school Superintendent Steve Zrike sent a letter to the school community, promising to leverage resources to “ensure that our community receives access to the highest quality services in a timely manner.”
“Zrike said the task force will look to find ways to provide students services both in and out of school,” the Patch adds.
One resource that Salem has found is Cartwheel Care, an organization in Cambridge, Mass., that provides mental health services designed around an “entire school community.”
In Salem, Cartwheel is providing evidence-based, tele-mental health services.
“The tele-mental health services are for students in grades three through 12,” Riccio says. “Cartwheel will also provide support to the parents and guardians of younger students, offering case management support. And Cartwheel has an adolescent psychiatrist who can provide medication consultations.”
So far, 79 students have been referred to the 100 funded tele-mental health slots. Students will get help with a range of challenges, including trauma, grief, anxiety, and depression. And instead of long waitlists, students are able to access these services in as little as seven to 10 days.
“One of the things that we talked about was whether kids would really be engaged,” Riccio says. “But Cartwheel explained that they can use tools to make the tele-therapy engaging. There are games the therapist can project on the screen, so the therapist and the child can play together and talk. That’s going to be helpful with younger kids.”
What supports this work is a creative, broad-based partnership. With the permission of parents and guardians, City Connects Coordinators refer students to Cartwheel. Cartwheel’s services are paid for by the Salem school system and by the Brookline Center for Community Mental Health, which is using state funds — awarded by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health in consultation with the state’s Department of Mental Health and its Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. This partnership helps fulfill The Brookline Center’s goal of transforming “the mental health system through the development and delivery of innovative programs and services that are accessible to our community and beyond.”
Providing tele-mental health services is a pilot program for this school year, so Salem and City Connects will assess its implementation and consider the program’s future. Riccio says she could see the program growing to serve more students.
Here at City Connects, we’re encouraged by Salem’s work to leverage our “whole child” approach for every child. Providing students with access to the mental health services they need is a crucial step toward supporting their well-being so they can focus on succeeding in school.
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