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Cheney High School Joins the Initiative for Student Wellness

This past fall, Cheney High School joined a  group of county schools selected to participate in the Initiative for Student Wellness—or ISW—an innovative mental health program created to address the youth behavioral health crisis impacting the region. 
 
The time since the global pandemic has highlighted the desperate need for youth behavioral health services. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, nationwide in 2021, more than 4 in 10 students felt persistently sad or hopeless and nearly one-third experienced poor mental health. That same year, more than 1 in 5 students seriously considered attempting suicide, while 1 in 10 attempted suicide. Locally in Spokane County, five people aged 10-19 died by suicide in 2022. 
 
Designed and funded by Spokane County, in collaboration with ESD101, the ISW is working to combat this decline in mental health. The program screens students through a voluntary survey before sorting each student into tiers of risk based on their responses. Then, appropriate resources are deployed to provide students with the help they need, either immediately or over time.
 
“We have the resources, and this helps us get kids connected to the right resources,” said Nicole Starkey, one of CHS’s school counselors. 
 
Starkey, along with Mental Health Therapist Jen Painter, Interventionist Maria Weber, and Student Assistance Professional Courtney Larcom, initiate a touch point in all ninth-grade health classes at Cheney High School with the Check Yourself Screening Tool. Currently, the program is only funded for students in ninth grade, with the hope to expand the program to other grade levels in the future.
 
Based on their responses, students will be filtered into one of three tiers with varying levels of intervention. The resource group, along with Assistant Principal Ryan Goodwin, immediately review the screening tool results and triages students based on risks and needs. All Tier 3 students are met with by the end of the day, and Tier 2 students within one to two weeks. Tier 1 students indicated no risks during screening but will receive personalized feedback as part of the Check Yourself Screening Tool. 
 
“For most students, there’s usually more than one person going to talk to them,” said Goodwin. “It’s usually two [people] no matter what it is because we want to make sure we get to kids as quickly as we can.”
 
Regardless of what they indicated on the Check Yourself Screening Tool, any student can request intervention. Painter, CHS’s licensed mental health therapist, meets with Tier 3 students for at least 10 sessions or more, depending on their situation or specific needs. A similar process is utilized for students who require less intervention in Tier 2, setting up meetings with either Larcom, the Student Assistance Professional, Weber, the Interventionist, Starkey, the Counselor, or Goodwin, the Assistant Principal. 
 
“The biggest reaction that I typically get is, ‘Oh, I didn’t want to bring it up because I didn’t think it was a big deal,’ or ‘I didn’t want to talk about my problems,’” Goodwin said. “Then once they are here, they’re more willing to open up and express their concerns or issues.”
 
“I’m getting to know kids that I typically may not have because they are not the ones who talk [about their struggles] openly,” Starkey added. “That’s really nice.”
 
Given the confidential nature of the screening tool, along with the accessibility, Goodwin estimates that about 85 percent of students consistently fill out the survey. Parents who prefer their child does not participate in the screening process have three different opportunities to opt out of the program, and students also have the opportunity to opt out if they so choose. 
 
“It’s allowing kids to see who to go get help from,” Starkey said. “Sometimes I’ve had kids who haven’t taken the survey yet, but they know they’re struggling. Their friend will bring them in and say, ‘Oh, you need to talk to Ms. Starkey.’ That’s helpful. It’s helping us build relationships so that kids feel more comfortable to have those connections.”
 
In addition to creating connections, the ISW program is also providing greater accessibility to mental health services. According to the 2022-23 ISW Year-End Report, the program is funded through Spokane County Mental Health Sales Tax, which allows for “any youth needing a behavioral health service to have access, removing limitations based on healthcare insurance or medical necessity, and preventing youth and families from enduring the arduous process of financial means testing.” The Initiative for Student Wellness program is free for all students, including referrals to outside mental health organizations. 
 
“[Jen] does a lot more intense therapy, and then depending on what [the student’s] needs are, she refers out to other therapists,” Starkey said. “There is such a gap between finding out that somebody is suicidal and then getting them into therapy. So, [Jen] is connecting with them to get them the services they need now, so that they can get more services later.”
 
The ISW program is enabling CHS staff to educate students on available resources while simultaneously combating the declining mental health of area youth. It is about creating customized treatment plans based on the student’s needs and situation, while maintaining a high level of confidentiality. It is about educating students on available resources and ways to take care of their mental health. It is about helping students get the help they need in a safe space with a trusted adult. It is about connection.
 
“I think it’s really good for the school,” Goodwin said. “It’s good to see what’s happening out there and the root issues kids have. I think it helps us become a better school, learning that we need a resource for this or a resource for that. The prevention aspect of things helps as well. Our goal is that every student has an adult here that they trust, and I think [ISW] has really helped with that as well.”
 
“Now [students] know they have multiple adults they can connect to,” Starkey added.
 
If your child is struggling in any way, please encourage them to reach out to their school counselor for support. Each school in the Cheney Public Schools district is equipped with a dedicated school counselor who is ready to provide support and connect students with available resources.  
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