Community mental health collaboration with ISD helps students access mental health supports

Mental health struggles like anxiety, depression, or forms of trauma can make everyday life difficult for adults — and even more difficult for children with the added social pressures of school. Many school-aged children and teens find it difficult to confide in their parents, caregivers, or school staff about their struggles. However, the Washtenaw Intermediate School District (WISD) is working to fight against that stigma and provide mental healthcare to its students with the help of Washtenaw Community Mental Health (WCCMH).

Grants and special projects coordinator for WISD Sarah Hierman explains that the schools have been working with WCCMH since the 2019 passing of Washtenaw County's Public Safety and Mental Health Preservation Millage, an eight-year program allocating funds to WCCMH specifically for improving mental health services in the county. In addition, WCCMH recently awarded WISD a $2.3 million grant to fill gaps in youth mental health programming. Hierman notes that the partnership between the two entities has evolved and strengthened due to the stresses of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“One of the things that has been unique is their willingness to collaborate with us on different things,” Hierman says. “WCCMH matches funding dollars in the form of mini-grants to different schools throughout the county, allowing for students and school professionals to put on their own mental health programming led by the students themselves. Events like Pride proms and picnics, the installation of a fitness room to develop healthy coping mechanisms, and ongoing peer-to-peer groups and discussions have helped to lessen the stigma surrounding mental health.” 

Washtenaw County Community Mental Health
Hierman also explains that the additional funding from WCCMH supports clinical work in school buildings such as full-time social workers, cognitive behavioral therapy groups, and Mental Health First Aid training for students and all school staff — even transportation and food service — so they can better recognize symptoms of depression and anxiety. 

“Ideally, all adults who work with young people would be certified, because I think it makes people feel confident having those conversations and then refer them to professionals,” she says.

Hierman sees the relationship between the schools and WCCMH as continuing.

“The beauty of it is we’re in the space where we need other people,” Hierman says. “It’s not just our relationship. They are who we need to bring in.” 

Hierman hopes that as the relationship continues, WISD can also build stronger relationships with other institutions such as law enforcement and the health systems in order to build a continuum of care for students. 

“We are looking at what we call an interagency coordinator between ISD and WCCMH to help with crisis response,” Hierman says. “How do we bridge the institutions to adequately help the person and connect them to the systems they need as well as when they exit services like inpatient and return to school.”

Along with mental health resources, WISD program manager Shannon Novara says that a recent topic of discussion has been substance use by students in the schools. 
Shannon Novara, Washtenaw Intermediate School District
“We have a lot of substance use resources for adults in our community, but not a lot for young people,” Novara says.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) found that more than 2.5 million middle and high school students reported e-cigarette usage in 2022. Novara confirms that some WISD students use substances such as nicotine and THC to mitigate mental health struggles, sometimes on school grounds. 

“Administrators need some sort of discipline for them, but they want to be sensitive to the fact that out-of-school suspensions aren’t always the best,” Novara says. 

Funds from the millage will be available to both WCCMH and WISD until it goes up for renewal in 2024. Until that point, WISD staff like Hierman and Novara will continue to work alongside WCCMH staff to continue to provide the best mental healthcare and education to students, their families, and school staff.

“We need to make sure we have different tiers of treatment available to young people,” Novara says. “We meet regularly with WCCMH to say this is what we’re seeing and find out how we look at the bigger picture to make adjustments  to help students, staff, and the county.” 

Rylee Barnsdale is a Michigan native and longtime Washtenaw County resident. She wants to use her journalistic experience from her time at Eastern Michigan University writing for the Eastern Echo to tell the stories of Washtenaw County residents that need to be heard.

Photos by Doug Coombe.

Shannon Novara photo courtesy Washtenaw County Community Health and Washtenaw Intermediate School District.

The MI Mental Health series is made possible with funding from a coalition of Michigan CMHs: Center for Health and Research Transformation, Genesee Health System, Mental Health Foundation of West Michigan, North Country CMH, Northern Lakes CMH Authority, OnPoint, Sanilac County CMH, St. Clair County CMH, Summit Pointe, Washtenaw County CMH, and the Community Mental Health Association of Michigan.

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