News Article Details

New programs to address mental health issues in schools

The Hutchinson News - 6/2/2019

June 02-- Jun. 2--A vacant nursing home adjacent to Hutchinson's hospital may soon get new life serving a much younger clientele.

Officials are drafting plans to convert a portion of the former 96-bed Dillon Living Center, which closed in November 2016, into a new therapeutic center for preschool age children who struggle with learning due to psychological problems.

The center is one of three new programs being introduced by Horizon's Mental Health Center, which is under the umbrella of Hutchinson Regional Healthcare System, to serve the mental health needs of youth in Reno County.

Horizons operated a program in conjunction with Head Start for a couple of months last summer that showed positive results in preparing children for school that officials now hope to replicate on a broader basis, with a dedicated staff providing year-round service.

Initially the "play and learn" center, targeted for a late-August opening, will house 25 children, ages 3 to 5, with plans to expand it to 50, said Mike Garrett, CEO of Horizons.

"It will be an educational opportunity for children, as well as a therapeutic opportunity," Garrett said. "We'll partner with USD 308. They provide the educational services, and we'll provide the therapeutic... It will significantly help the community, those kids, and families. It will be a benefit to Horizons as well."

First, Horizons has to remodel the property to make it compliant with the Kansas Department of Health and Environment regulations.

"We engaged an architect and a planner who developed a similar facility in Wichita," Garrett said. "They came and looked at our site and are developing drawings and plans."

Costs are not finalized, but they're expected to be about $180,000 to $200,000, Garrett said. The agency will capitalize the expense over 15 or 20 years.

Underserved need

"We've been working with 308 for several years," said Brenda Brown, Horizon's COO and director of clinical services. "Tammy Buller is an amazing community partner with us."

They recognized, however, that the need for their services was much more significant than was being provided.

"We could quadruple the number of children in there," Brown said. "We have enough children we could provide our own classroom."

"Some of these children have so much trauma in their life they can't learn," she said. "We try to teach them ABCs, colors, numbers, but they can't comprehend because they're in such a fight or flight state. It's almost animalistic sometimes; banging heads on walls, taking their clothes off. It's sad to see."

Horizons staff will provide psychological support, to help the children feel safe and teach them how to regulate their emotions, Brown said.

"When they get to a point they can learn, we'll transition them back into Head Start or kindergarten," she said.

The school district will provide two para-educators and a Head Start teacher.

"They'll come into our facility," Brown said. "We'll do the majority of work, getting them to a baseline. Then we'll expose them to some education materials to see if it can be absorbed."

They'll also provide occupational and speech therapy, Brown said.

The center will operate from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily, four days a week.

Insurance funds the services, with children screened into the program and reassessed every 90 days.

In-school services

Horizons also plans to expand an in-school counseling program it introduced last year in three local public schools into at least three more.

"We were involved in Farris, McCandless and Lincoln schools," Garrett said. "We had two dedicated master-level clinicians and six case managers working on that project on a full-time basis."

"It really helped the schools in dealing with a lot of children who previously needed to be handled, because of a crisis, by teachers or principals," he said. "That was taking away from their time doing what they were trained to do. Our expertise comes in for those kinds of services. It's a good partnership, with our ability to be able to do the therapy. It's a better environment for all the kids in the classroom."

The in-school Horizon staff work primarily with students which the mental health center "already has open charts on," Garrett said, though any child the school thinks would benefit from the program can be referred to it.

The goals are to help children develop skills to be more successful learners, as well as decrease the number of disciplinary referrals on students, in-school or out of school suspensions and how often police respond to the schools.

"We were able to increase the level of care that we were providing by 30 percent," Brown said. "The number of children we were able to help grew, which was wonderful. National statistics tell us 20 percent of children in school need mental health care, and we're not anywhere near that."

Previously Horizons may have had several case managers work in a particular school, Garrett said.

"With this, it's a dedicated team, the school personnel get to know our staff and can interact with them," he said. "Our staff get to know the classroom teachers, building administrators, and school counselors. It developed into a much more collaborative effort."

"By integrating with the school, they become part of the staff," Brown said. "That's broken down the stigma barrier and they're able to coach the teachers on how to intervene, ... and they're able to intervene much more quickly."

"We've got kids showing up at the office of the therapist, rather than us having to pull them in to take care of them," Brown said. "They're showing up to say they need help. These are kindergarten to 5th graders. It's cool to see them learn its safe to come and get the help they need."

By normalizing mental health care, they can also prevent suicides, she said.

Building on success

The program was so successful they were asked by other schools to implement it, Garrett said, first within 308 and now from other districts in the county.

They also conducted a short-term program in Nickerson that the district wants to expand to full time in the Nickerson and South Hutchinson schools.

"Haven asked us to do the same and Fairfield as well," Garrett said. "We estimate we can go from six schools up to 15."

"We're making sure that we have the staff to meet the district need, and that we were in the schools that demonstrate a significant need," he said. "The ideas is we don't need to have a whole team there if there are only a few students, but we may have a team there one or two days week. Where there's a school with a higher need, we may be there four or five days a week."

"We're in the process of developing a model for how to roll it out this coming school year -- what the school will cover and how many clinicians and how many case managers it will take to meet that need, but not be overstaffed."

Horizons and USD 308 developed the program on their own last year after conversations between Garrett and Superintendent Gary Price that started two years ago. That after the district was not selected as one of eight schools around the state to get a similar pilot program funded by the legislature, though the district recognized the need.

"Those are funded a little differently and have a different model," Garrett said. "We are entering discussions with the Pratt school district and Skyline School about participating in a program that is more sponsored by the state."

"Horizons has really worked over last, I'd say 3 to 5 years to take our services out into the community," Garrett said. "That's where our consumers live, where they go to school. That's what led us to expand our school-based services. That's what led us to provide more services in the Reno County jail. That's what we want, to take mental health services out of the clinic setting and try to provide them in a community setting. This just seemed to be a good part of that strategy."

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(c)2019 The Hutchinson News (Hutchinson, Kan.)

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