Sarpy County school districts are joining forces with CHI Health and other organizations to form a task force to help students and their families access mental health resources.

Talks to form the task force have been going on for years and all the county’s school superintendents, as well as CHI Health representatives, other services providers and county officials, met for the first time April 26 in a meeting hosted by Papillion La Vista Community Schools.

Attendees described the atmosphere in the room as inspiring and positive, with a sense of optimism that pooling resources and knowledge would go a long way toward addressing what is one of the greatest challenges facing school districts today.

Mental health has been a priority for Papillion La Vista Community Schools for several years since it came up with a new strategic plan, Superintendent Andy Rikli said. CHI Midlands had grant dollars available and approached the district about creating a partnership, and soon the other Sarpy County school districts, service providers and agencies were on board.

“There’s a growing recognition that student mental health needs are a growing challenge in our community and schools and people want to be a part of the solution,” Rikli said.

Gretna Public Schools Superintendent Kevin Riley said it was inspiring to see so many entities together in the same room.

“I just felt that, as I’ve seen in the past, Sarpy County is very proactive and I’ve seen that for decades,” he said.

The main goal of the initiative is to connect and educate students, their families and the school districts to mental health resources since they often don’t know what services are available and how to access them. Multiple people involved said financial costs, transportation, long wait times for appointments and stigma surrounding mental health also can be barriers.

Schools have services and resources like counselors, psychologists and partnerships they can rely on if a family needs help, Rikli said, but occasionally they encounter a situation where they run out of options.

“It’s not going to solve mental health concerns by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s one more set of eyes, it’s one more set of resources, it’s one more option for schools and community leaders to pursue if they’re at wit’s end,” he said.

Georgie Scurfield, executive director of Lift Up Sarpy County, said increasing the number of providers who accept Medicaid could be a part of the strategy to help families access services, and her organization is also working with school districts to collect data and firsthand knowledge of what mental health issues are prevalent in schools.

It’s up to the parents to decide when services are needed, she said, but “when they come and know they need help we need to be able to give them some.”

CHI Health and other providers bring professional expertise, facilities, other services and ability to guide families and schools through the process of how to access services and coordinate with other providers, said Marilyn Rhoden, vice president of behavioral services for CHI Health.

“Because we have such a continuum of services we’re valuable for this group to help find the right service for the right kid,” she said.

Rhoden said CHI Health works with many school districts and has entered similar, though not as expansive, partnerships. Pulling together services and the unity displayed in the discussion were great first steps, she said.

“We’re really looking forward to making a difference for the kids and the schools,” she said.

The county’s school superintendents are excited about the resources that will be available to them through the task force.

“I think it’s a great thing, especially for a district like ours,” said Brett Richards, superintendent of Springfield Platteview Community Schools. “We’re in a rural area and we don’t have any mental health professionals on staff.

“It’ll be a game changer for us in helping families deal with these types of issues.”

Trauma is a big part of mental health, said Kevin Mills, director of student services for Bellevue Public Schools, and the district is training its employees to recognize if a student has experienced trauma so they can refer students to the proper service.

“It takes on a lot of different forms and each person is different in how they deal with that trauma,” he said.

The March flooding was a timely example of major trauma that affected more than 300 students in BPS, Mills said.

The district told all of the families affected to reach out to the Salvation Army to minimize the logistical burden of seeking assistance. The mental health task force could potentially serve a similar purpose of creating a central location that helps families navigate mental health resources.

Being able to send children to the Sarpy County hospitals will also be a goal. CHI Midlands in Papillion and Nebraska Medicine—Bellevue currently do not have inpatient psychiatric beds. Children with mental health needs are taken to CHI Health Immanuel in Omaha or CHI Mercy Hospital in Council Bluffs.

Rikli said over the summer the group will finalize logistical details like where and when the group will meet, who will facilitate the meetings and work with the Sarpy County Attorney’s Office to make sure legal i’s are dotted and t’s are crossed.

The groups plans to meet regularly beginning in the fall, Rikli said.

Got a News Tip? Email: brody.hilgenkamp@bellevueleader.com Phone: 402-537-4848

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