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St. Mary and Hesperia USD partner to provide behavioral health services, address youth suicide risk

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HESPERIA, Calif. — Committed to expanding mental health services in the High Desert, particularly for children in crisis, St. Mary Medical Center is partnering with the Hesperia Unified School District to improve care for students in trauma and with mental health needs.

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

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, said Kevin Mahany, the hospital’s director of community health investment. Hesperia 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.

The grant is 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.  WBT 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 including:

  • 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 confidentially. The grant also funds an expert in child trauma Ron Powell, Ph.D., who is assisting the district in developing a tiered approach 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 speed-up developing mental health programs.
  • Conducting a March 2020 convening of local school districts to build a collective action model improving mental health care across as many local school districts as possible.  It’s very possible multiple school districts will work together implementing innovative programs engaging their students.

Training teachers is important because there is no uniform method of sharing data with those who work hands-on 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.

“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”.  

The grant is also bringing together Emergency Room leaders at St. Mary and Desert Valley Hospital with local mental health agencies providing children’s care.  Both hospitals are reporting increases in children and teens seeking urgent mental health care and hope partners can develop care plans as the children and families prepare to be admitted for inpatient care.  

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