State program helps SD2 students with mental health needs

2014-03-02T00:15:00Z State program helps SD2 students with mental health needsBy ROB ROGERS The Billings Gazette

Sometimes you need a professional. 

To that end, schools in Billings have been using the Comprehensive School and Community Treatment, or CSCT, program to help treat students with mental health disorders.

The program places a clinical therapist and a specialist in a school full-time at no cost to the school district. The students in need of help are referred to the program by the school and their parents are brought in to give approval. Sometimes, it's the parents who request the service. 

The clinical therapist and specialist are given office space at the school and then regularly meet with the student during the school day. 

"They can do a much deeper level of therapy than my school counselor," said Lori Booke, principal at Ponderosa Elementary School. 

Ponderosa was one of a handful of SD2 schools to pilot the CSCT program four years ago. So far it's been an impressive success, Booke said. 

Having the resource in the school means treatment is readily available to the student. Parents don't have to take time off work to get their child to an appointment and the student doesn't have to leave school, Booke said.  

It also means intervention — for what can sometimes be dangerous or damaging mental health disorders — happens at a younger age. 

"The younger that kids get connected, the better off they're going to be," she said. 

The CSCT program has been around since 2002 and is overseen by Altacare, a statewide provider of in-school mental health services. Over the last decade, 100 Montana communities have put in place at least 350 different CSCT programs in their schools.

But in Billings it's still relatively unknown.

"It's a new program," said Tara Sylvester, a licensed therapist with Altacare working out of Riverside Middle School. "A lot of people aren't familiar with it yet."

She sees that as part of the program's mission. The more parents and district officials understand the program and the benefits it can offer, the more students will have the opportunity to participate. 

While Altacare oversees CSCT, school districts have the responsibility to find a local mental health provider and adopt the program. 

"The program requires that the district enter into a partnership with the provider," said David Bennett, Altacare CEO. 

Beginning with its pilot program in 2010, SD2 has partnered with the Yellowstone Boys and Girls Ranch, AWARE, Inc. and Altacare to provide services at Ponderosa, Orchard, Newman and Bench elementary schools, and Riverside and Castle Rock middle schools.

The program itself is open to all students who may have a need. The money to pay for CSCT comes from Medicaid, the state or the family's private insurance, Bennett said. 

Bennett acknowledged that SD2 was a little slow to adopt the program compared to the rest of the state.

"Billings was late to get into the game," he said.

However, when officials there sat down to design the program and how it would work in SD2 schools, their approach "was actually very good," Bennett said. 

Officials at the district purposefully chose multiple providers in a thorough selection process to make sure they were the right match with the particular school to which they were going to be assigned, he said. 

"Billings took a very positive approach," he said. 

The team assigned to Ponderosa has been a great fit, Booke said. And the work they've done has left the school counselor other school staff members free to focus on other students who still require attention but don't have needs that are so acute. 

She thinks other schools could benefit from the program and hopes to see it used more. However, it requires space — something in short supply right now in the district.

Sylvester agreed. She's been part of CSCT at Huntley Project School and Orchard before she was at Riverside and has met with students in closets and empty locker rooms. 

Regardless of space concerns, she believes CSCT would impact any school in which it was placed.  

"Any school could benefit from the service," she said. 

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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