Efforts are in the works through Educational Service Unit 13 in Scottsbluff to get a new program going that would provide care for students with mental health needs.

Last year, ESU 13, Scottsbluff Public Schools and Sen. John Stinner worked together to introduce the Panhandle Beginnings Act in the Nebraska Legislature in an attempt to capture funds to help establish more assistance for students with needs. Though the bill had been indefinitely postponed, efforts have continued to establish the program.

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ESU 13 has applied for grants to help with startup costs for a proposed Panhandle Beginnings Day Treatment Day School Program, designed specifically for students having mental health issues and challenges. Financial commitments have been received by ESU 13 from more than half of the 21 schools in its service area.

“The biggest challenge that we have is putting together a program that we feel can be sustainable,” Katherine Carrizales, ESU 13 director of behavioral and mental health, said. “I think that we have other models that have been wonderful programs outside of the state, but they have had difficulty with sustainability because school districts can’t fund it alone. That’s why we’re really trying to find ways to braid in the possibility of accessing health insurance and the possibility of accessing other foundations such as the Sherwood grant. We just actually submitted another grant proposal this weekend to SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration), which is a federal grant.”

ESU 13 Administrator Andrew Dick said he is thankful for the efforts of Stinner to get the ball rolling for the program and making some connections with the Sherwood Foundation. Dick said there are not a lot of disposable funds available from the Legislature, but he knows the project is important.

“To me, mental health, especially those students who are experiencing severe mental health conditions that may need a clinical diagnosis, may potentially need prescription medication treatment, we need a program to best meet the needs of those students,” he said.

Carrizales said Stinner’s involvement helped move forward a program that had been talked about for several years.

“When Sen. Stinner put together legislation for us, we had more than just schools saying this is something that we need,” she said. “It really is going to be a project that takes more than just schools to buy into it and support it.”

For the student struggling with mental health or behavioral issues, it’s often difficult for a parent to navigate the best course of treatment. Carrizales said that’s where Panhandle Beginnings can provide help with establishing a course of treatment, a continuum of care, in bringing in specialists as needed, but also striving to keep the child in a setting geared to for reintegrating within the school system.

“Whenever possible, it’s best to keep kids in their home school setting,” Carrizales said. “I think there are times we need to have facilities like this where we have a few weeks in a different setting and really get back on track and learn skills to manage stressors and the different difficulties they’re having, then support as they reintegrate into their home school setting. Sometimes what can happen when we have kids going outside of the area for treatment is that there’s a real disconnect with getting them reintegrated.”

Young people in today’s world have any number of difficulties to deal with on a daily basis. Carrizales said it is important for parents and school staff to communicate in order for the student to find the help and support they need.

“It’s a lot harder to grow up in today’s world,” Carrizales said. “I think there’s a lot more stressors. I think we’re getting better and better at identifying it earlier and trying to treat it earlier. I think the world really has changed in that there are so many things the youth have to manage and know about and handle today that we didn’t have to growing up. That does add a layer of stress for them and as a parent trying to parent them through it.”

Dick said Panhandle Beginnings, as well as professional personnel in schools, can be a tremendous aid to school staff already stretched to the limit.

“A social worker, a licensed mental health practitioner (LMHP) can provide that additional resource and support,” he said. “Already a principal or a school counselor has a very demanding and challenging workload on their plate, so that LMHP (licensed mental health practitoner)social worker can provide that expertise, that specific skill to counsel, to help students work through their mental health issues and support the teachers as well.”

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Mark McCarthy is a reporter with the Star-Herald. He can be reached at 308-632-9049 or via email at mark.mccarthy@starherald.com.

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