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Rural school tackles students' mental health issues

One of the early issues schools faced with student mental health was how to provide resources to students who couldn’t - or wouldn't – see a counselor or psychiatrist. Some schools decided to bring the mental health resources to the students with wellness centers right in the school building.

“What we really are wanting to do is to prevent students from hurting others, but equally from hurting themselves as well, ” said Debra Brinson, Executive Director of the School-Community Health Alliance of Michigan. She said things like metal detectors and police are important, but a multi-pronged strategy is really needed to make sure kids stay safe in school.

“It's the first time ever in the history of CDC that we have, in their survey, the largest number of kids in the greatest percentage of jumped kids who felt isolated and felt alone and didn't feel like that they felt optimistic about life.”

Cadillac Area Public Schools Superintendent Jennifer Brown created a three tier system to bring structure to the resources available for students. Tier one starts with destigmatizing mental health... Tier three is triggered when there is a concern for a student’s safety. In-school programs are important Brown said because in rural areas, transportation is often a barrier.

“I would say accessibility to services is a real barrier for rural Michigan and rural areas. I think that this is why we see such a need and success rate with the Adolescent Wellness Center.”

So, during the school year students can access services inside the building. But in the summer that easy access disappears.

Superintendent of Lake City Area Schools Tim Hejnal wants to bring students to the great outdoors. He is bringing back guided backpack trips after a 20 year hiatus to help students connect with nature and also self-reflect. “Whether it's a ropes course, climbing wall, backpacking, whatever, those are opportunities to talk about the things that matter in life and that's what our goal is. To really continue to partner with parents to talk about the things that matter with their kids; not to replace the parent dialog, but to just help kids be thoughtful about what they want to become.”

The first trip, a three day camping trip is scheduled later this month. A dozen kids will participate. They will be given problem solving tasks, journal questions, and group discussion, Hejnal said, “I really believe that working through the pandemic, that everyone who has come through the last couple of years has experienced trauma, and whether we take time to work through it or not, or recognize it at some point, behaviors and thoughts and actions have changed or will change, and we need to be proactive as much as we can or reactive.”

Mental health has perhaps never been more open and talked about than it is today. From bringing mental health resources to students during the school year to taking them on guided backpack trips over the summer, rural schools are trying to provide for kids and their families coming out of this pandemic while eliminating barriers along the way.

Alexis Seeley is a journalism major from Macomb, MI. Alexis is going into her fourth year at Central Michigan University.