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Belle Fourche selected to pilot new mental health program aimed at students

December 15, 2018

BELLE FOURCHE –– Belle Fourche Middle School will soon be the home of a new mental health support program due to a grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).

The South Dakota Department of Education has been awarded an $8.7 million Project AWARE grant from SAMHSA, a partnership with the Department of Social Services. Over a period of five years, the funding will be used to help raise awareness and fund a tiered support system of evidence-based training and individualized services for school-aged students and school communities in need of mental health supports.

“The earlier you can help support and treat a disorder a child may have, the more likely it is that it can be corrected,” Belle Fourche School District Superintendent Steve Willard told the Pioneer via email.

A key component of the grant is to connect school professionals with community mental health center professionals to reach more school-aged youth who need behavior and mental health services.

“We know that the need for these kinds of services is there in our schools. We’ve been hearing growing concerns from school officials,” Mary Stadick Smith, interim state secretary of education, said. “This grant will help us to address some of the current gaps in service and better connect students and families with mental health resources.”

Three school districts were part of the grant application — Wagner School District, Bridgewater-Emery School District, and Sioux Falls’ Whittier Middle School.

Black Hills Special Services Cooperative was also part of the application, hoping to use Project AWARE in its cooperative dealings with the Belle Fourche and Douglas schools.

The target start date for the Belle Fourche School District, Willard said, is the first of the year, if a qualified therapeutic counselor can be located and hired.

Smith said the program uses a three-tiered approach. First will be universal preparation activities where a new staff member will be trained to recognize if there are mental health difficulties and issues or if there are specific students who many need mental health services. One new, full-time position will be created at each participating school or entity to work with students who are struggling with behavioral health issues in a safe, welcome, and respectful environment, Smith said.

Partners including the Children’s Home Society, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and the Center for the Prevention of Child Maltreatment at the University of South Dakota will help deliver evidence-based training for schools and communities.

“We are discussing how to develop baselines and goals for the program based on the grant’s guidelines through cooperation with the state (Department of Eduction) and Black Hills Special Services Coop.,” Willard said.

Willard added that parents would need to “opt-in” to the program via forms sent home with children to receive the free services for their children.

“I am hoping this will be a great opportunity to help address mental health needs of our children,” he said. “I look forward to helping children and giving them the best opportunity to get a quality education in the Belle Fourche School District.”

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