Traverse City News and Events

Mental Health Services To Expand At TC West, Kingsley Middle School

By Beth Milligan | July 18, 2019

Traverse City West Senior High School and Kingsley Middle School will offer expanded mental health services for students this fall, with a new grant funding a full-time behavioral health counselor to be posted at each school. Educators and health officials hope the move will help address a growing mental health crisis among students, with suicide now the second-leading cause of death for adolescents in Michigan.

Grand Traverse County commissioners Wednesday approved a $200,000 grant agreement between Michigan Primary Care Association and the Grand Traverse County Health Department that will pay for the addition of two mental health providers for the schools. The grant covers staffing expenses beginning this summer and continuing through September 30, 2020. Andrew Waite, program supervisor of adolescent health for the Health Department, says future funding for the program is included in the state’s budget plan and is expected to be renewed going forward.

“We are hopeful that the state legislature will continue the line item for this program well into the future,” he says. “Our contacts from the state are confident that the current funding is secure through at least 2023.”

County commissioners expressed alarm at statistics shared by Health Department officials about the status of mental health in Grand Traverse County students. According to 2017-18 survey data, more than a quarter of local high school students – 25.6 percent – reported they had “seriously considered attempting suicide during the past 12 months.” Nearly 19 percent of students made a plan about how they would attempt suicide, while 11.4 percent actually made an attempt – with 3.5 percent of students making an attempt severe enough it warranted medical intervention. Similar numbers were found in middle-school students: More than 29 percent said they had seriously considered suicide at some point, with 16.6 percent making a plan and 10.1 percent making an attempt. In both age groups, numbers were notably higher among female students than males.

“I went through this, and I was quite honestly amazed at the statistics in there…it’s alarming to say the least,” said Commissioner Gordie LaPointe. Waite agreed that the numbers for Grand Traverse County students were “staggering.” He shared additional data with commissioners that indicated almost half of all youth that came through Kingsley’s adolescent clinic in the past year showed mental health risk factors. Extrapolating out the county data, Traverse City West Senior High School – which has approximately 1,650 students – would have nearly 700 students at risk for depression and 422 students who have considered suicide. The seriousness of the issue was also made tragically apparent this past year in Kingsley, which experienced three student suicides in eight months. “Mental health in our youth population is a significant public health concern,” the Health Department concluded in a memo about the grant program.

Commissioner Betsy Coffia noted that local school districts receive the state minimum in per-pupil funding, leading to cuts that spread nurses and social workers “out over multiple buildings (with) caseloads of hundreds of children across the district.” She said the grant funding was “helping supplement the fact that we have been underfunding as a state our mental health services in our district.” She added: “Unfortunately, our kids are paying the price.”

According to Traverse City West Senior High School Principal Joe Esper, student mental health is becoming a statewide priority for educators. The Michigan Association of Secondary School Principals – which held its conference in Traverse City in June – chose the issue as one of three priority focus areas for the coming year. “Which it never has been before,” Esper told commissioners. “Those have always been academic issues, college entrance exams and things like that. Student mental health is in the top three now.”

Esper agreed with Coffia that school funding “has been pretty stagnant in Michigan,” impacting school districts like Traverse City Area Public Schools (TCAPS) and Kingsley. “What gets met first is the academic needs, the teachers and the classrooms, kind of the bare-bones things you need to run the schools,” Esper said. “What we find more and more (is) that if we're not meeting those non-academic needs of students, the academic efforts are hampered.”

West and Kingsley were chosen as the school sites for the two new counselors based on their percentage of students eligible for reduced lunch, reflecting lower income levels that some of the grant funds are targeted toward. “The grant is going to have Medicaid-matching funds, so they have to put in there that the purpose of some of that money is for (targeting) Medicaid and under-served populations,” said Waite. But he noted that the counselors and the Health Department’s services would be available to all students, regardless of income or Medicaid eligibility. “No one’s turned away,” he said.

In addition to the two new full-time counselors, two additional half-time behavioral health counselors are already working at the Health Department’s adolescent clinics in downtown Kingsley and at the Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School District (TBAISD) campus, serving youth ages 10-21 in the five-county region. That means there will now be four locations at which students can access services, Health Officer Wendy Hirschenberger told commissioners. “This is a huge and much-needed boost of funding for mental health in the schools,” she said.

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