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St. Mary partners with Hesperia Unified to address mental health issues

Daily Press - 12/15/2019

Dec. 15--APPLE VALLEY -- St. Joseph Health, St. Mary has partnered with the Hesperia Unified School District to improve the response to students with mental health issues and those at risk of suicide.

The goal of the partnership, announced Thursday, is for the school district to establish systems that more quickly respond to student needs, especially those who may be at risk of suicide.

The news comes days after actress Mariel Hemingway spoke to a group of High Desert teachers on the topic of mental health among adults and students.

During Hemingway's appearance Monday in Victorville, California Teachers Association Representative Dawn Murray told the Daily Press the ongoing discussion and focus on mental health in schools is much needed.

Kevin Mahany, the hospital's director of community health investment, said that St. Mary received a $560,000 grant to help schools educate teachers to identify and reach out to youngsters suffering emotional trauma, and to find swift help for children who come to the hospital's emergency department in crisis.

He added that the district has a higher than average rate of children in need of referrals to behavioral health specialists and looks to the grant to address illness in preventative ways.

"Desert/Mountain Children's Center has been a valuable partner and resource who gathered these statistics from our local school districts," Mahany said. "What we're finding is that mental issues are hitting this generation hard and fast. Our teachers need help in understanding that when a child is in trauma, they aren't going to learn anything."

Mahany said the top mental issues faced by children include trauma that leads to anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. He said an epidemic exists among the younger generation, whose members are plagued by thoughts of suicide.

"At St. Mary and Desert Valley Hospital, we are seeing an increase in the number of kids in the ER that are in severe crisis with suicidal thoughts or a plan to end their life," Mahany said.

The grant is also bringing together emergency room leaders at St. Mary and Desert Valley hospitals, with local mental health agencies providing children's care, Mahany said.

The St. Mary grant comes from the Well Being Trust, founded by Providence St. Joseph Health, the hospital's parent organization, and now an independent not-for-profit organization advocating for mental wellness.

The organization is investing in a number of mental health programs assisting youth and schools across California.

The St. Mary community investment team, which oversees outreach to vulnerable populations in Apple Valley and surrounding areas, is using the funding in a multi-pronged approach that includes:

* Forming mental wellness committees at HUSD's 15 campuses and working with the school district to draft policy. The work involves identifying strategies to better assist students with the assistance of school staff without compromising confidentiality. The grant also funds Ron Powell, Ph.D., an expert in child trauma who is assisting the district in developing a tiered approach to creating a more trauma-responsive culture.

* Engaging Desert/Mountain Children's Center, the High Desert's largest provider of school-based mental health care. The Center's expertise and resources will be invaluable school system's development of mental health programs.

* A March 2020 convening of local school districts to build a collective action model to improve mental health care across as many local school districts as possible. It's possible multiple districts will work together to implement innovative programs that engage students.

Training teachers is important because there is no uniform method of sharing data with those who work with students. Teachers will be empowered to work with students who have been emotionally traumatized, often illustrated when they act out in class. Rather than expel troubled students, teachers, and possibly Desert/Mountain therapists, would help relieve the trauma so the child can focus on learning, a St. Mary report said.

"We are fortunate to have Dr. Powell," Mahany said. "His specialty is how children learn, and their social and emotional responses. When kids are traumatized, they can't learn. A student experiencing trauma is unable to retain what is being taught."

Reporter Rene Ray De La Cruz may be reached at 760-951-6227, RDeLaCruz@VVDailyPress.com, Twitter @DP_ReneDeLaCruz.

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