Health service providers, law enforcement talk mental health in schools

(Photo Source: Unsplash).

Cortland County mental health service providers and law enforcement officials spoke on what their agencies are doing to help youth at schools, as well as potential future funding at the County, City, Towns, Villages and Schools Advisory Board meeting earlier this week.

The meeting centered around mental health services needs in schools and a $3 million federal grant that could address service provider staffing shortages and build-up service offerings in the county. The grant would come from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), a branch of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Coming out of the pandemic, we knew that our youth mental health would have a high need of behavioral health support,” said Sharon MacDougall, County Mental Health Department Director of Community Services. “School systems of support are completely overwhelmed and there is a need for funding. There are never enough funds for our behavioral health providers.”

Funding would be geared toward the highest-need, highest-risk youth who are facing mental health issues in the county, MacDougall said. She noted this group is typically dubbed by federal agencies as people with “serious emotional disturbances.”

“(If the grant is awarded), we would have $1 million each of the three years to invest in our community as a system of care,” she said. “This doesn’t mean just the Mental Health Department, but also the Department of Social Services, County Probation Office, county schools, and Family Counseling Services of Cortland. Every agency that touches youth in our community to support mental health is involved in this.”

Georgetown University defines systems of care as a spectrum of effective, community-based services and supports for children and youth with or at risk for mental health or other challenges and their families. Part of the system of care approach includes law enforcement.

“As much as we don’t want our kids in the legal system, we know it is going to happen,” MacDougall said. “We can’t leave law enforcement out. They are part of the solution. They are a part of our system of care.”

County sheriff Mark Helms spoke at the meeting, noting the Sheriff’s Office assists all school districts in the county. 

“Even if it is a third-party vague threat, we still go and meet with the parents,” he said. “It is about as much as we can do without infringement of people’s rights.”

Homer police chief Robert Pitman detailed some of his department’s measures at Homer schools.

“In Homer we have 5 school resource officers in three buildings,” he said. “We have an evening school resource officer for after-school activities and board meetings. They engage in the physical security of buildings.”

Lisa Hoeschele, executive director of Family Counseling Services, said her agency has been providing services at county schools for a decade.

“We do early intervention screening on a regular basis,” she said. “We send out a screening tool parents can fill out. If that child shows issues around mental health service needs we can intervene and recommend they visit one of our clinics.”

Family Counseling Services has set up in-school clinics at all districts, but the rise in needs for mental health services has been difficult to outpace.

“We work closely with school staff and identify the needs of students. Between 2009-2014 the need for mental health services grew by 239 percent,” she said. Hoeschele noted that 63 percent of the school children who visit in-school clinics end up using Family Counseling Services programs.

Hoeschele also noted the need for more services has been on the rise since prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, which is seen as a flashpoint that has increased demand even further.

“Since 2019 we saw an additional 311 percent increase in need for services,” she said.

The county is expecting to receive more information on their grant application by August or September.