Free and on-site services support mental health in Boise schools

BOISE — When Boise School District officials talked to and surveyed over 7,000 students, they found that while 70% of students are adjusting well to a post-COVID environment, 30% are struggling from “depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation, and a range of other issues,” according to Jason Shanks, Boise School District counseling supervisor.

In response, the school system will continue a collaboration established this past school year with BPA Health, a behavioral health and managed services company.

“This partnership with BPA Health is another great tool to provide mental health support not just to the students but to their families as well, even through the summer months when help might be needed but school is out,” Shanks said.

From this summer and into next year, Boise school officials will continue to contract with BPA insurance to provide free counseling for families outside.

In the 2021-2022 school year, BPA Health began to offer five no cost counseling sessions for students and their immediate families/guardians. Funded by COVID-19 relief money and state grants, this service is available for tens of thousands students in Boise, West Ada, Kuna, Kimberley, Twin Falls, and the Heritage Community School.

These free counseling opportunities span the spectrum — behavioral health, legal consultation, parenting resources, financial planning, work-life balance skills, eldercare, and more.

“The school district can help a lot with the students who are willing to talk, but the issue is much bigger than that, which is why we have private services for students and BPA helping families,” Shanks said. “There’s a lot to be said about a systems approach that involves family and school.”

According to BPA CEO Sarah Woodley, they hope to address “anything in the family dynamic that’s making it difficult for students to achieve in school.” The company has a history in this realm based on a similar internal mission.

“We’ve offered employee assistance programs in Idaho for 40 years to help with life issues, issues that make it hard to be present at work,” Woodley said.

In answer to, “Where are families really struggling?” BPA put together a pilot program to extend mental health benefits that might help communities. Then the pandemic hit. This led to a “rough couple of years” that forced BPA to pivot to telehealth to provide contactless service.

Then, in Twin Falls in 2021, the managed services provider began to train school staff on how to approach families with necessary resources with voluntary access and no costs.

“We want families to know it’s a free service and totally confidential,” Woodley said. “No information goes back to the school. We’re just here for them to talk to someone about what’s happening.”

From just Jan. 1 to May 18 this year, over 200 students and family members tapped into these resources when BPA made them available in Boise.

Woodley said she’s heard “stories all the time about helping families at the end of their rope.” Though hundreds of families have used these five free sessions, the CEO would like to see many more utilize BPA’s service.

“We encourage folks to tackle these issues,” Woodley said.

In-school psychiatric services

While BPA offers assistance for families, Boise is providing free mental services for its students. This began with a grade 7-12 survey to determine need after coming through COVID.

“The district went down the path to see what students really say so we could start meeting the students where they needed us,” Boise supervisor of counseling services Jason Shanks said.

When the survey revealed that kids were struggling socially and emotionally, but schools were not equipped to respond with psychiatric care, Boise district staffers brought in outside help.

“Mental health services in schools are relatively new. We can’t rely just on schools. We rely on outside mental health providers partnering with individual schools,” Boise public information officer Dan Hollar said

Several Boise schools now receive mental health services from private practices. 24 different therapists from 11 different local agencies are connected to and operate within Boise institutions. This provides several advantages for students and the school.

Kids don’t need to drive or arrange a ride to therapy sessions or ask their parents to find help. Professionals are on site to help them. School counselors can serve as better resource liaisons for students and parents and act as a triage for crises. Teachers are freed from managing a classroom and mental health at once. Parents are assured their children are taken care of physically and emotionally in school.

The access to mental health care is unmatched in the current climate, according to Boise.

“Some students are seeing a six- to nine-month wait. With how difficult it is to get into mental services, counselors in our schools are seeing students fairly quickly,” Shanks said.

This progress is only the beginning for Shanks.

“I’m really excited for us to come back to school now that we’ve established that connectedness,” Shanks said. “I’m excited to see that focus on mental health this school year.”

Matt Denis

Matt Denis

Reporter Matt Denis is based in the Treasure Valley and has served as an educator and a journalist. Prior to national digital reporting and founding an arts and culture section in Eugene, Oregon, Matt worked as an English and history teacher in Detroit, San Diego, and Milwaukee, Wisconsin. You can send news tips to [email protected].

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