Mental health care services in Summit County schools ramp up with new provider

Teachers know when students aren’t right, when they lay their heads on their desk during their favorite class or when they start missing school or acting out. 

But what to do next? In some Summit County schools, teachers and school counselors would have to do the best with what they had, offering support they weren’t trained to give and taking time away from other work they were supposed to be doing.

Some schools were lucky enough to have a staff social worker or others trained in mental health care who could help provide strategies and ways to support the child.

Starting this school year, though, every public school in Summit County has access to an on-site clinical mental health counselor who is budgeted to visit the campus for four hours each week, the program’s manager Nelson Clayton said.

That’s the result of Summit County’s changeover to a new provider for its behavioral health programs, which officially started Sept. 1.

There’s been a process for students to receive therapy in place for years, but Clayton says the number of kids who have been referred to mental health services in the two-plus months since the county’s contract with the University of Utah’s Healthy U Behavioral began is already more than double the total number last year.

Counselors and program and school administrators say the benefits have been manifold with the new onsite services, including knocking down logistical barriers to care, contributing to a destigmatization of mental health issues as parents grow to trust school-based services and allowing guidance counselors, teachers and administrative staff to focus on the jobs they’ve been trained to do.

Plus, more students now have access to mental health care that may help them deal with the challenges they face.

Ben Belnap, associate superintendent of student wellness in the Park City School District, said the uptick in care doesn’t mean students are being overtreated; it’s the result of a change in strategy and newfound ability to treat the underlying causes of students’ behavior rather than the behavior itself.

“A compliant child is not necessarily a healthy child,” Belnap said. “Where in the past it was spare the rod, spoil the child — 50 years ago — and you don’t act out, you fear the teacher. Now these kids have space and we’re able to identify the root of the issue. … There’s a lot more to wellness than complying in a classroom.”

When a teacher or school administrator notices a student acting out, they consult with school-based counselors, and if they decide further help would be beneficial, seek consent from the student’s parents. That’s when a referral is made to Clayton, a behavioral health program manager with the University of Utah who oversees the program and matches the student with an appropriate care provider.

Referrals for school-based therapy were possible in previous years, when Summit County contracted with Valley Behavioral Health, but logistical problems often made that option impractical, Clayton said.

The counselors were paid per appointment, rather than per hour, and for far-flung schools in the East Side school districts, Clayton said it was hard to make the trip worth their time. Some students were referred to a clinic in Park City, but adding another appointment to a family’s packed schedule sometimes proved untenable.

Starting in September, Summit County entered into a contract with the University of Utah’s Healthy U Behavioral to provide federally mandated behavioral health services. The biggest switch, county Health Director Rich Bullough has said, is going from a provider model to a network model. Instead of directly employing health care providers, the new system provides a network to choose from, enabling patients to access more health care practitioners.

The school counselor program was one of the main focuses of the changeover, Summit County’s Behavioral Health Director Aaron Newman said.

“Out of this entire transition, this is probably the program I’m most excited about and view as the biggest success,” Newman said. “It’s way beyond anything we had even thought we’d be looking at right now.”

Summit County is acting as a pass-through for state and federal funds, and the school counselor program is coming at no increased cost to the county, Newman said.

Clinical mental health counselor Travis Sanderson, who now works in the North Summit and South Summit school districts, said the biggest benefit is the ability to offer services in schools.

“I’ve worked a lot with kids over the years — that’s the No. 1 roadblock, especially for school-aged kids seeking counseling,” he said. “Parents have to take time off work, bring them into the office. Typically a session is 45-50 minutes, (so that’s) two hours for parents.”

The contract also allows the flexibility to do a quick, 15- to 20-minute check-in with a student if that’s all they need that day, Sanderson said, or to go long when that’s called for.

And districts can allocate more hours to a given school if it finds that’s where it’s needed.

Having regular hours in schools allows the counselors to serve as a resource for teachers, as well, Sanderson said. Sometimes they’ll have informal conversations about different strategies to use with kids or answer questions.

South Summit Superintendent Shad Sorenson said the school-based therapists enable district-based counselors to focus on preparing students for the next steps in their academic careers and reduces student behavioral burdens that fall to teachers.

And if students are receiving care from a trusted source like the school district, it may reduce stigma in the adult population. Parents and families sometimes participate in therapy sessions, as well, Sorenson said.

Newman said the number of adults seeking services in North Summit and South Summit has increased at roughly the same rate as the student numbers have, though he added that the program is still very new.


Skate with Santa at the Park City Ice Arena 

Santa Claus returns to the Park City Ice Arena on Tuesday, Dec. 12, from 5 to 7 p.m. for the annual Santa Skate! Don’t forget to bring your ski or bike helmet to wear while you’re on the ice. Complimentary skating and rentals. 

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