The need for mental health help in schools has become an increasing priority in school districts throughout the country.

In smaller areas like Jackson County though it can be a struggle getting those students the help that they need, so the Black River Falls School District is taking steps to combat that.

The district recently entered in an agreement with Lutheran Social Services of Wisconsin and Upper Michigan to help allow the professionals to come directly to the school and offer help.

Previously students and families would have to travel to these services on their own time and as superintendent Shelly Severson noted, that can be taxing on parents.

“Particularly if the family is low income, parents can only take off so many days before they’re in jeopardy of losing their jobs,” Severson said. “Add on to that some of these offices our families could be traveling to say La Crosse, so it’s saving them the cost of travel and time.”

In the case of Lutheran Social Services, their closest office is in Eau Claire and allowing the professionals to come to BRF directly helps out greatly.

Lutheran Social Services works with around 30 schools in both western Wisconsin and upper Michigan currently to provide the service.

This isn’t the first time the district has partnered with services before as they work with Stein Counseling to provide similar services.

The school district certainly knows how important it is to provide these services whenever possible.

One of the biggest problems that mental health help was facing other than travel was the long waiting lists some students would be put on before they could even get help.

“If a family decides that this is an avenue they want to go down, they are sometimes truly put on a waiting list for six months before they can get an appointment,” Severson said.

Once the initial appointment is made, more regular meetings can be scheduled, but that long wait is still a large hurdle for some.

The new agreement with Lutheran Social Services would eliminate a lot of those problems as once the parents and school come to an agreement for treatment, Lutheran Social Services then comes to the school.

“Schools provide a more structured and safer environment for the kids who have experienced trauma,” Lutheran Social Services program supervisor Tami Christianson said.

Christianson said that sometimes a home can be too chaotic for someone who’s experienced trauma, so being able to come into the schools helps a lot.

The program has seen a lot of success and positive responses from schools and families.

“The schools really appreciate having another resource,” Christianson said.

While the school has worked with counseling before, Lutheran Social Services had asked for a more formalized arrangement, but it’s not funded by the district or advertised for.

“The state right now requires us to have these [memorandum of understanding] in place” Lutheran Social Services program manager Amy Larsen said.

The funding comes entirely from the county or comprehensive services.

“We are basically saying if they’re already servicing one of our kids, then come here and do it, we’re fine with it” Severson said.

The whole idea behind these agreements and partnerships is removing the barriers that might be around getting mental health.

It’s become more prevalent in schools as districts and administrators become more aware of the issue and start working towards solutions.

“It’s a crisis that we have to start working together to meet the needs,” Severson said.

A couple of students have already worked with other providers that are working with the school, so these programs are seeing success already.

The elementary school is currently part of a statewide mental health grant for professional development of teachers.

Teachers aren’t being trained to diagnose mental health problems, but instead to recognize students who appear to have had a traumatic experience or may be living in trauma.

“They are not mental health counselors, but they are learning tools to help with students that are struggling,” Severson said.

Severson said that if students came to them mind, body and spirit whole, the education would be easy, but it’s never that simple and there’s always basic needs that need to be met.

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Stephen Knoll is a reporter for Jackson County Chronicle. Contact him at 715-284-0085.

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