Middle-schoolers thrive in behavioral health program

June 01, 2016
AK Story 1When Providence Health & Services Alaska helped fund the setup of on-site behavioral health services at one of Anchorage’s middle schools, its goal was to provide access to affordable health care for young people struggling with mental health issues. A year later, the results have proven to be even more successful than organizers could have imagined.

Finding their voices

“This is a place where they can talk about things that they can’t talk about with other people,” says Volunteers of America counselor Pam Shepherd, who sees patients each week. “A lot of times that is all they need; someone to listen to them. It helps them see that people are seeing them beyond their problems.”

That is the program’s goal, says Heather Ireland, who directs the clinic.

“These kids have true mental health needs,” Ireland says. “This gives them a convenient and affordable way to get help without it interfering with their school days.”

Last year, Providence provided $50,000 for the startup at Begich Middle School after seeing success with a similar program at Clark Middle School that has been in place since 2010. The Clark program focuses on treating physical ailments such as ear infections and colds, but Ireland says that when children there were referred for counseling services, the follow-through oftentimes didn’t happen.

“That’s when we thought it might be a good idea to offer behavioral health services,” she adds.

Healing while learning

At Begich, students in need receive services on a sliding-fee scale. The services help them deal with issues ranging from anger management to depression to anxiety. Here, kids can begin to heal while missing minimal class time.

The on-site location also has freed up working parents, Ireland adds. Most parents are grateful for a place where their child can receive help without having to leave school grounds.

On a recent Thursday morning, Shepherd prepares to meet with one of her patients. She sets up in a room near the front office that has been transformed into a private refuge. A large whiteboard is covered with phrases and tips on how to cope with emotions, and a table in the corner is circled with wobbly stools, specially designed to help jittery kids settle their nerves. Sometimes, the kids might just talk; other times, they may write down their emotions. Games and other activities – such as a sand-garden to help calm nerves – line the shelves, accessible for the right moment.

“Trauma is one of the main items these kids are facing,” Shepherd says. “This is at least a starting point to help them find ways to deal with it.”

25 students learn coping skills

Providence’s Mission to serve the poor and vulnerable is exemplified in the work that goes on here. It pinpoints a small population very much in need. For children who were once troubled students and continually in the principal’s, nurse’s or counselor’s offices, the program now gives them a way to express themselves.

“The kids who often find their way in the program are in here all the time,” says school nurse Denise Brakora, BSN, NCSN of her examining room. “But as they learn coping skills, we don’t see them as often. They are figuring out how to successfully express themselves. In a perfect world, this would be in all the schools.”

Ireland says the program has successfully helped more than 25 kids since it began. Slowly but surely, she is seeing progress. “Providence’s funding has given us the ability to grow the program slowly and make sure we get it right,” Ireland says.

A better chance at graduation

For Shepherd, the program is about giving young people the tools to cope – not just with the challenges of middle school, but also the sometimes hard realities of life.

“If we can get them successfully through eighth grade,” she says, “they are going to have a better chance at graduation.”