CUSD stepping up its mental health services - SanTan Sun News SanTan Sun News

CUSD stepping up its mental health services

December 20th, 2022 SanTan Sun News
CUSD stepping up its mental health services

By Ken Sain
Managing Editor

Chandler Unified School District is stepping up its efforts to address mental health issues, partnering with three agencies to provide more services to students and staff.

CUSD officials are also meeting with a committee of parents, staff members and practitioners to determine future steps.

“We really wanted some practitioners on there, because some of this isn’t in our area,” said Dr. Craig Gilbert, associate superintendent of pre-K-12. “We want to really make sure that we have intervention all the way to post-vention.”

After putting a request for proposals to mental health agencies, the district awarded contracts to the Hope Institute of America, LLC; Lighthouse Wellhealth, and Southwest Behavioral and Health Services.

“We’re trying to bring availability to our community by making sure that, if at all possible, that we have the practitioners to do it,” Gilbert said. “It’s not just in person, but it can also be telehealth.

“That’s a huge piece right there. I think it’s a game changer, especially with the needs that we’ve been finding within our community.”

The district earlier this fall announced plans to spend $5 million to improve address mental health issues.

That includes adding more counselors and social workers to schools in addition to hiring the three agencies. Gilbert said the district still has money to spend.

“We’re just on the front end of spending,” Gilbert said, pointing out some of the counselors the district hired were paid for with state safety grants.

He said officials hope they have enough money to pay their three partners for at least two-to-three years – if not longer.

“When you look at, for example, the Hope Institute just needs to get started,” he said. “Our belief is once it gets started, it’s going to fund itself, because the goal for the money is really to help our students have the means and the resources.

“The goal is to try and make sure there’s no barriers for families to get support.”

The district started working on improving its mental health programs after three CUSD students took their lives in a 10-day span last May. Another CUSD student died by suicide at the start of this school year.

A student group, Arizona Students for Mental Health, formed to advocate for improved care. One of their demands was for students to have a voice, asking that they be allowed to stage a town hall to address students.

There have been no suicides publicized since the one early this school year. That doesn’t mean that everything is fine, Gilbert said.

He said not all parents want how their child died publicized.

“We have to take the approach that whether we’re hearing about it or not, we have to go with the premise that it’s happening and we have to make sure that we have these things in place,” he said. Brenda Vargas, director of counseling and social services for the district, has been meeting with the committee of parents, staff and practitioners.

She said the pandemic put a strain on many families. But she said it’s too soon to tell if that added stress has lessened.

“It’s difficult to really come to a conclusion in regards to trends without doing proper research,” Vargas said. “You know, I don’t think it’s fair for us to make a conclusion based on just this year. We’re only halfway through.”

Gilbert said district staffers are listening to students’ concerns as well.

He said Natasha Davis, CUSD prevention coordinator, has been attending club meetings and talking directly with students.

One of the ways they are responding to students’ concerns is to focus on LGBTQ students, who studies show are much more likely to consider suicide.

“One of the things that Miss Davis is going to be doing is she’s going to be reaching out in order to engage in those groups at the schools when they’re meeting for their clubs,” Gilbert said.

He said the district is currently training staff to start more clubs – such as the Bring Change to Mind at the high school level and Hope Squad for middle schoolers.

“We’re trying to expand the reach and seeing what we can do because we know that we hear the voices of the students that are coming, which we really appreciate,” Gilbert said. “But we’re also trying to figure out what voices are we not hearing that we need to reach out to.”

Gilbert said the main issue is deciding where the district’s three partners will need offices. The Hope Institute is new to Arizona and setting up offices for the first time.