The Medical Lake School District is partnering with Whitworth University to provide mental health care to its students, families, staff and the community.
Suzanne Greenhall, a marriage and family therapist graduate student at Whitworth, is launching the program and other students will soon follow. Greenhall has office hours at Medical Lake High School twice a week to meet with students and families. She’s also helping lead free monthly public workshops on mental health.
The goal is to have a Whitworth student intern in each of the district’s schools. “We’ve interviewed four other interns,” said Tawni Barlow, the district’s director for special services. “Some will start in November, and some will start in January.”
Barlow said she used to work as a CPS social worker and for the Department of Corrections. Many of the people she worked with said their issues started in childhood, and Barlow said she wants to focus on early intervention in her work in the school district.
“Mental health is such a huge need for our schools,” she said. “It becomes a systemic issue.”
She was an adjunct professor at Whitworth when she connected with Doug Jones, the program director for Whitworth’s marriage and family therapy program, about running a satellite program in Medical Lake.
“It makes a lot of sense,” Jones said. “We have been doing this with Spokane Public Schools for quite a while, but the smaller communities have been unserved.”
The students in Whitworth’s program are required to complete 3,000 hours of postgraduate experience under qualified supervision, and working in the Medical Lake School District will help them accumulate those hours, Jones said.
“Students are always eager to find a place where they can hone their skills,” Jones said. “I think it’s a model that can really grow and be copied in a smaller community.”
Jones is a qualified supervisor and the district has two qualified supervisors on staff who can also oversee the Whitworth students.
The district wanted to expand its work to include families and the community because there are no mental health programs in Medical Lake, said assistant superintendent Kim Headrick. It also found a need beyond the student, because students may act out in school but the root of their problems usually lie elsewhere.
“It’s basically a holistic approach,” Headrick said. “In order for the kids to be successful, they have to feel secure at home and secure at school.”
The district has school counselors in each building, but they are focused on other tasks such as career and college readiness. They also lack the intensive clinical training required for mental health counseling, Jones said.
“School counselors and mental health counselors do radically different work,” he said.
The district received a grant several years ago that paid for a half-time mental health counselor at Hallett Elementary. That grant will end at the school year and Headrick said this new program is a way to continue that work.
“We saw a real benefit,” she said. “I think the Hallett folks and families will be disappointed if we lose those services.”
The state doesn’t provide funding for mental health services in schools, and the cost of the new program will be minimal, mostly connected to each school providing office space for the Whitworth students. Because of the lack of funding a community model is needed to address mental health issues, Jones said.
“The needs are greater than the state can provide,” he said.
The goal is to equip students with the skills they need to navigate the world, Jones said. “If you just look at the world around us, we’re living in a stressful time,” he said.
The mental health workshops have already begun at Hallett Elementary. The next session from 6 to 8 p.m. on Nov. 6 will address how to recognize the signs of PTSD. Upcoming topics will include behavior discipline, developing healthy boundaries, depression, teen dating and the impact of divorce on children. A complete calendar is available on the district’s Health and Wellness web page.
“We’re just excited about how this is going to support our community,” Headrick said.
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