Lee County School District partnering with Lee Health for better mental health care in public schools
By Brooke Stiles
Assistant Assignment & Features Editor
Mental health in Lee County’s School District has long existed as an underfunded program, until now.
The Lee County School Board approved the collaboration project with Lee Health Kids’ Minds Matter and Lee County schools on Tuesday, to introduce mental health navigators in schools who will bring improved access to mental health care for children and their families.
Kids’ Minds Matter is a collaboration of Lee Health’s Golisano Children’s Hospital and the Lee Health Foundation that focuses on mental health.
“Lee County has traditionally been underfunded as a district in mental health and community mental health, [but now] as a school district we have a unique opportunity to be a part of the solution to that challenge,” said Lori Brooks, Director of School Counseling and Mental Health Services for the Lee County School District. “With Lee Health and Kids’ Minds Matter, we have the beginning of a beautiful partnership where we’re all creating systems of care and access to those systems through our schools.”
This partnership hopes to add a much-needed layer to the existing school-based counseling by employing mental health navigators in schools for families with a need for intensive mentoring.
The mental health navigators will operate in the schools but are funded by Lee Health and the philanthropic Kids’ Minds Matter movement. The mental health navigators will work to provide additional resources to children and families by providing them with information and connections to mental health providers in the area.
“Our school-based mental health professionals have a lot of information, but not a deep-dive intimate level,” Brooks said. “We had a family we worked with that the mom had taken her child to mental health counseling and a psychiatrist and was told by two different agencies that her child needed behavioral intervention, and they don’t offer that. That’s the piece where we realized for that kind of situation that a navigator would be critical.”
Mental health navigators need a bachelor’s degree and a background of managing mental health issues.
“[Mental health navigators] will be folks who are well versed in managing mental health issues within families, who know the community resources, and who understand the experience of having mental illness in families,” said Paul Simeone, the Vice President of Behavioral Health at Lee Health. “They will help people negotiate community resources and treatment services, so that they can get the kind of care that they need.”
Before funding can be allocated to have multiple navigators in each school throughout Lee County, a pilot study will be launched in two elementary schools with one navigator in each school.
The school district chose two Fort Myers elementary schools: Colonial Elementary School and Ray V. Potorff Elementary for their pilot study.
These two elementary schools were chosen using data from the school district that found they could highly benefit from additional mental health resources. Simeone and Brooks also believe starting in elementary schools is key to preventing children from developing serious issues.
“Mental illness is an epidemic among children in our country and especially in Florida, where we have so few resources,” Simeone said. “The research is showing more and more that the earlier we [combat] mental health conditions, not only do we improve outcomes later in life, but we also know that people will require fewer services as a result of intervening.”
Once the agreement between the school district and Lee Health is signed, the pilot study will begin.
“We are going to use this as a demonstration project to apply for a very big SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration) grant for $3 million over four years, so that we can actually build out the services in a much more robust way,” Simeone said.
“We have these two schools selected [because] it’s the inception point of what we really are trying to make multi-year initiatives and to grow that through a SAMHSA grant,” Brooks said.
School-based counseling is free as well as the navigator. If families choose to seek outside help, navigators can help families access affordable mental health care.
“The mental health allocation is for our school-based services and then referrals outside, but it doesn’t pay for treatment,” Brooks said. “With Kids’ Minds Matter coming in and funding the navigators it’s kind of like having a liaison embedded in your building. Parents may not want the school to know everything, but [they can] connect with a navigator and say, ‘I do not mind the healthcare system knowing things because I know my child needs help.’”
“Without this particular initiative, we would be lacking that step the navigators will walk a family through,” Brooks said. “We can do school-based mental health, but not all students will benefit from [it]. Some need referrals for outside services and additional layers of medical treatment. Kids have complex needs and that’s where we need to partner. That’s where Kids’ Minds Matter as an organization is a game changer for us.”
While this partnership is a huge step in administering proper mental health care in public schools, Ally Caudill, an FGCU student who works to teach children yoga as a mental health practice at Florida Yoga Academy, thinks the school district could go even further in implementing mental health care in schools.
“Children’s mental health is one of the most important things in the world [because] children are literally our future,” Caudill said. “They carry their behaviors, understandings, values and morals into our future, so mental health care for our youth should be normalized, not seen as something special.”
She believes practicing coping with emotions could benefit children as well as understanding positive self-habits at a young age.
“Mental health practices that could easily be brought into school include journaling, meditation, mindfulness, yoga, art therapy, and sound healing,” Caudill said. “These are all truly simple and could change everything in the way these children are receiving their education.”
Florida still has a long way to go in terms of mental health care, but the Lee County School District is taking the first steps towards offering more effective mental health services.
“Parkland was indeed a pivotal tragedy for this state, and as a result districts received funding in the form of a mental health allocation per district from the Florida State Legislature,” Brooks said. And in that legislation, we are called to partner with our community behavior health and medical agencies, so absolutely, the time is now. The time should have been 10 to 20 years ago, but we’re here. We’re partnering and our students and our schools and our families will be better [because] of it.”