Eagle County approves funding to increase mental health providers in schools

Starting next school year, a mental health clinician will be present in all local public schools

Jay Pepitone is the Hope Center school-based therapist at Red Canyon High School. Pepitone is one of 13 clinicians that serve the Eagle County School District.
Berry Eckhaus Photography/Courtesy photo

The Eagle County Board of Commissioners unanimously approved a motion to increase funding for mental health provider Your Hope Center on Tuesday. The funding will ensure that there is a certified mental health clinician present in every school in Eagle County, starting next school year.

The Eagle County Mental Health Advisory Committee recommended the additional funding in response to a significant increase in student use of school mental health resources in the current academic year. Comparing data collected from August through February 2020-2021 with that of the same time period in 2021-2022, student interactions with Your Hope Center mental health services nearly doubled, going from 4,103 interactions to 8,083. Crisis assessments have more than tripled in that time, jumping from 25 to 76 assessments.

Heath Harmon, the county’s public health director, said that the rise in service use reflects spiking numbers across the nation that are being recorded in the wake of the pandemic.

“There was a recent publication from the Centers of Disease Control that really was getting at this,” Harmon said. “Among high school students most importantly, but nevertheless across the entire nation, we’re seeing dramatic increases in the need for crisis services, as well as suicide ideation and suicide attempts.”

The committee is also responding to the results of a recent survey that measured the behavioral and emotional risk index for K-12 students in local public schools. The survey, conducted by Pearson’s Review360, identified 7% of the student population as “extremely elevated risk,” 20% of the population as “elevated risk” and 72% of the students as “normal risk.”

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Mandy Ivanov, the health communities coordinator for Eagle County, said that these numbers show that Eagle County students are at higher risk than the normalized distribution, which is 3-5% extremely elevated risk, 15% elevated risk and 80% normal risk.

“It’s probably looking like this across the nation,” Ivanov said. “I think that 80, 15, 5% split is where, in a normal non-pandemic, non-stressful world event situations year, you’re going to have that normal distribution. This is not a surprise.”

Ivanov said that the current number of in-school clinicians is not adequate to meet the growing need, and the waiting period for services outside of schools can be three weeks or more.

“The Your Hope Center clinicians are getting squeezed from both sides,” Ivanov said. “From the community mental health providers who … don’t have time to see them out in the community, so they get referred back to Your Hope Center, and then the teachers or initial staff that these youth interact with. There’s need for more in the middle there.”

Your Hope Center and the Mental Health Advisory Committee requested $200,000 over the course of three years to help finance the hiring of five new staff positions: four full-time school clinicians and one program manager. The new clinicians will provide over 120 additional therapist hours to students each week, and will fill the provider gaps that currently exist in the district.

Two of the clinicians will be assigned to Eagle Valley High School and Battle Mountain High School, adding to the current providers and giving both high schools two full-time clinicians each. The other two clinicians will cover all of the elementary schools, splitting time to provide 2.5 days of service per week to Eagle Valley Elementary, Brush Creek Elementary, Edwards Elementary and Homestake Peak School, and one day per week to Red Sandstone Elementary.

As of now, the majority of elementary schools provide zero days with a mental health clinician, but Health Families Manager Joan Dieter emphasized that early intervention is a key pillar to reducing mental health crises down the road.

“Tackling early intervention first seems like a way that we can be responsive to the need within our schools, this crisis-level need that we’re seeing, while also laying the foundation for those kids, as they move into middle and high school, to be more stable, to have those established coping mechanisms and established resources,” Dieter said.

Your Hope Center will be hiring clinicians this spring and summer, and will also be prioritizing the hiring of multicultural and bilingual providers.

“We are seeing an increased need within that population,” Dieter said. “That’s top of mind for them when they’re going through the hiring process. We need to be able to be responsive to all of our community members, not just some.”

The additional funding will be taken from the local marijuana tax income that is earmarked for the Mental Health Advisory Committee. Harmon said that officials are being strategic about spending, but that the magnitude of the post-pandemic mental health crisis requires immediate action.

“This would still actually allow us to stay in check with a reserve that would cover three months, so we’re not dipping too far into that budget, but we want to make sure that we’re utilizing the funds that we have access to to immediately put services into our school district,” Harmon said.

Following the commissioners’ unanimous approval of the motion, Commissioner Kathy Chandler-Henry commended the work that has been done in the county to expand mental health services, particularly in this time of elevating crisis.

“People from other areas that we talk to about the mental health crisis that is everywhere are just awestruck that we have therapists in every school, and partnerships with so many agencies,” Chandler-Henry said. “So thanks to Eagle County Public Health and Your Hope Center, we appreciate it.”

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