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Rural schools less likely to provide mental health services to students

Doug Nadvornick

A new WSU study shows that only a little more than half of all public schools report providing assessments for mental health disorders.

A new Washington State University study finds rural school districts are less able to provide mental health care for students than their urban counterparts.

The report analyzed data collected in 2017 and 2018 for the federal School Survey on Crime and Safety. The report’s lead author, Janessa Graves from the WSU College of Nursing, says major factors for rural districts are a lack of funding and lack of access to mental health professionals.

“A lot of these are no-brainers for anyone who has lived in rural and familiar with rural communities. But I think what we need to do is highlight the issues, highlight the fact that youth are having trouble accessing care and be able to try to improve access to services," she said.

Graves says those services need not be complicated. During the pandemic, she says, she worked with a Spokane group to find money to allow eastern Washington’s Educational Service District 101 to hire a mental health professional to see students in five rural districts via telehealth.

“With a little bit of grant funding we were able to provide all of these districts with a mental health therapist all day, one day a week, and they really did utilize that service," she said.

That grant funding ended and so did the telehealth project. She says it proved to her that the service was valuable. She hopes that experiment and her team's study will help mental health advocates make the case to state legislators that schools need more help to treat students in-house.

“Providing through schools seems like it’s a very apt approach to providing care because you avoid the transportation issues, finding providers, scheduling, and it can be done pretty confidentially. We already do pull out for things like speech therapy, so we could just pull kids out for mental health therapy," she said.

Graves says her team’s research found that mental health stigmas in rural communities are eroding. She says people are becoming more open to the need to help troubled children in schools.

The report was published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

One of the Northwest's most seasoned reporters is returning to his SPR roots. Doug Nadvornick will be heard frequently on KPBX and KSFC reporting on local news.