Bismarck schools prioritize student mental health services

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BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — A few years ago, Bismarck High School administrators and staff recognized a “critical” need for students: mental health services.

A survey of a sample group of BHS students last year found 17.2 percent of students seriously considered attempting suicide. About 30 percent of students surveyed expressed prolonged feelings of sadness or hopelessness, which a local clinical counselor said would meet the criteria for a depressive disorder.

Recognizing the need, administrators and staff decided to do something. With a mix of district funding and community grants, the high school hired a mental health professional who provides therapy sessions to students during the school day, the Bismarck Tribune reported.

“We saw a need, and the need was kids struggling with depression and anxiety and not able to get access to service,” said Mike Yantes, a social worker at BHS.

Not just BHS, but other schools in the district have ongoing pilot projects this school year related to mental health. Simle Middle School received funding to offer additional mental health supports to students. Dorothy Moses Elementary School also has a therapist in the school.

“If we have kids struggling with depression, we can’t just say, well, nobody’s going to notice, and we’re not going to talk about it. No, we need to talk about it,” said interim BPS superintendent Jim Haussler, who petitioned the Bismarck School Board this year for additional mental health funding.

Schools in Bismarck offer various mental health supports for students, starting in the elementary schools.

Bismarck High began teaching a mental health “resiliency” curriculum to freshmen three years ago as a way to help students learn to deal with adversity. After that, high school staff and teachers noticed the students needed additional outside services.

“We saw it as critical,” said Brenda Lipp, a school psychologist at Bismarck High, whose been employed by the district for 35 years.

This year, they brought in Megan Kraft, a clinical counselor with The Village Family Service Center, who has an office in the school. Part of the reason for hiring Kraft was to eliminate a major barrier to students: access to therapy.

Kraft provides treatment during the school day, so students aren’t missing classes and may feel more comfortable in a familiar environment.

In mid-October, a couple weeks after Kraft started at BHS, she was referred about 20 students and began therapy with eight of them. The students are referred to a school counselor — often by a teacher or parent — who then refers them to Kraft.

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