topics In The News San Antonio mental health providers’ work in schools is about to ramp up, fast

San Antonio mental health providers’ work in schools is about to ramp up, fast

This article was originally published by San Antonio Express News on January 3, 2022.

When students from South San Antonio Independent School District called out for more mental health support in 2019, they finally got it.

The district had been trying to get by with just one social worker for its 9,000 students, many of whom were struggling with depression, suicide, anxiety, and more.

The San Antonio Mobile Mental Wellness Collaborative was born, bringing together five community organizations to serve students, parents, teachers, and staff.

The collaborative was busy almost immediately — in 2019 it served 1,600 students at South San ISD — and was deemed so successful that it expanded to Harlandale and Edgewood ISDs. Today, it helps more than 5,000 people across those three districts.

As the pandemic has exacerbated demand for mental health services, eight other school districts in Bexar County have asked the program for help. In response, the group will partner in January with Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute to bring the same collaborative community approach to mental health services in school districts across the county.

The goal is to expand the approach across the state. It’s something that could be replicated nationwide as well, officials said.

“We had people from all over the country asking about a model like this,” said Talli Dolge, the CEO of Jewish Family Service San Antonio and a leader of the San Antonio Mobile Mental Wellness Collaborative.

“We are still seeing the enormous effects of (the pandemic). And we are going to see it for years to come because we weren’t equipped and we weren’t doing everything we could for mental health in schools,” Dolge said.

The Meadows Institute is a nonprofit organization that conducts research on policy implementation in Texas. The local collaborative was attracted to Meadows partly because of its existing partnerships with schools throughout the state, as well its access to mental health research and its influence in Austin on legislative and policy decisions.

At each school district, wherever it is, the collaborative will work with administrators to determine what mental health services students need, then will find local providers to come onto school campuses, giving students better access.

Right now, South San, Harlandale and Edgewood ISDs each provide a centrally-located building for services provided by Clarity Child Guidance Center, Family Service, the Children’s Bereavement Center, Jewish Family Service San Antonio and RISE Recovery. Students can be referred to any of the five organizations by parents or guardians or by school social workers, counselors, teachers or staff members. Parents can also refer themselves online to get free services in the building.

“To watch what the collaborative has done in a short period of time is mind-blowing,” said Michelle Harper, the executive vice president of state policy at the Meadows Institute. “They jumped in and did it and they are supporting the community in so many amazing ways.”

“We’re honored to be selected to continue to support that work in San Antonio and to help the program expand its reach,” Harper said. “The need for services is so critical right now.”

In January, Dolge will become the CEO of the collaborative and join Meadows as senior vice president of school and community partnerships.

The five organizations that make up the collaborative will begin providing services at San Antonio ISD at individual campuses — because the district is so large, officials have decided not to create a single location, Dolge said.

In February, the collaborative will move into a building at Judson ISD to provide services for that district.

School districts pay roughly between 1 and 2 percent of the cost of the services, Dolge said. The rest comes from federal grants, individual donors, foundations, and the city of San Antonio and Bexar County.

“Meadows does a lot of really wonderful fundraising surrounding mental health, so we are hoping that that is part of building this model,” Dolge said.

The timeline for further expansion in Bexar County and elsewhere depends on the dollars. Dallas area schools and Midland ISD are two areas the collaborative is exploring, but first, fundraising has to be successful and local mental health community service providers have to be found.

“As we expand, we need a substantial amount more funding,” Dolge said. “Meadows, along with me, is going to be a convener, a fundraiser, a developer, and a system-change piece of this. We are going to be the backbone of this so the other service providers can focus on the services in the schools.”

Meadows also works with state policymakers and hopes to leverage their influence when it comes to funding. Finances will help determine “how, long-term, this is sustainable,” Harper said, adding, “Long-term, there will probably need to be some (financial) policy solutions, but we aren’t there yet to be able to identifiy specifically what we need to be working on.”

The model’s reliance on community groups enriches the community as well as the schools, Dolge said.

“School districts have so much on their plate. They have too much on their plate. School counselors are overwhelmed. School personnel weren’t trained in mental health and behavioral health problems some of our students are seeing, especially after COVID-19,” Dolge said. “We bring in all of those resources so school districts don’t have to feel overwhelmed.”

“We will walk other communities step by step (through) building a program like this.”

The full article is available online here.