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Behavioral health therapy pilot program helping elementary students improve mental health

Posted: 3:11 PM, Mar 11, 2019
Updated: 2019-03-13 07:19:18-04
Behavioral health therapy pilot program helping elementary students improve mental health

BOISE — The conversation around mental health isn't one easily had, especially between a mother and her elementary-aged son.

"He had some trouble with feeling anxious and being really hard on himself, and he was always super against going to counseling, seeing a stranger. It just wasn't something he wanted to do, but I knew he would benefit from it," said Alisa Hitt.

Alisa says her son's anxiety brought on concerns about missing school and his mother missing work. A new program at her son's school that offers counseling during the school day meant there was one less thing to worry about.

"Once he found out it was in his school, a place he's comfortable, his area, he was on board with it," said Hitt.

The behavioral health in schools pilot program is underway at five community elementary schools. A community school is a school with access to community resources to help students get adequate access to food, clothing and medical care. A practicing counselor travels to the school three times each week so kids can learn healthy coping methods and behaviors without missing valuable class time.

"You have to be ready to learn, you have to be fed, you have to be stable, you have to be addressing your trauma, and all that has to happen before you're ready to learn," said Principal of Morley Nelson Elementary Melanie Koch.

Optum Idaho, which created the pilot program, says providing the therapy in a comfortable location for the kids leads to improved responses.

"Part of the reason they need to see a therapist is associated with fear or anxiety," said Optum Idaho official Dr. Dennis Woody, "where better to address those issues than in a place where they are every day."

The program in place around the valley follows the model that exists in Vancouver, Washington. The program may potentially expand to preschools as well.

“The earlier you can intervene, the better it is for the child in terms of the other things associated with living a normal life as child at school and at home and doing things in the community that kids like to do," said Woody.

Now, Alisa's son is excelling in and out of the classroom and passing along the advice his counselor teaches him.

"I had an injury in December and hurt my arm and had a lot of pain, and he looked at me one day and said, 'Mom, use the breathing tool. It will help with the pain,' and I thought how awesome is that that he's helping me," said Hitt.

The pilot program works in collaboration with Idaho Medicaid members, and the program serves kids specifically who utilize Medicaid, fall within the coverage gap or have struggles under their own private insurance.