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Supporting Youth Mental Health in Rural Schools

Hearing highlights collaboration among health systems, schools, community organizations

October 19, 2022

Pennsylvania’s rural schools are seeing an overwhelming demand for behavioral health services.

Today, the Center for Rural Pennsylvania hosted a public hearing focused on youth mental health. The panelists noted that the behavioral health challenge is only growing, with about 42 percent of rural students reporting feeling sad or depressed most days, according to the latest Pennsylvania Youth Survey.

The hearing included insights from state agencies, school leaders, and the health care community, and highlighted the innovative ways hospitals are delivering care in rural communities.

Behavioral health care does not happen in a single setting, but is a “collection of offerings that provides the right service at the right time,” said Dawn Zieger, vice president, behavioral health, Geisinger.

“We acknowledge that there are certain care settings that are pinched, but we have to bolster the continuum of care,” Zieger said. “We have to ensure that the patients’ needs are met in the most cost-effective and low-barrier setting.”

Among the takeaways from the hearing:

  • Trauma-informed practices:  Educators are interested in trauma-informed training to better support students with mental health needs. Hospitals play a role to distribute behavioral health knowledge across communities, Zieger said.
  • Key contributors:  Physical distance and a lack of reliable internet access amplify challenges forming connections. Social determinants of health, such as childcare, food insecurity, and transportation, also play a role.
  • Potential of telehealth:  Telehealth can help address access to services, but it is not the only solution. Hospitals continue to focus on new models of care to deliver behavioral health care where it is needed.
  • Workforce challenges:  Schools are facing shortages of teachers, social workers, and psychologists. A focus on recruitment and retention incentives can help improve the pipeline of highly trained behavioral health workers in Pennsylvania.
  • Need for support:  Health care and school leaders are focused on connecting students to care, but payment lags behind the overwhelming demand for these services.

Jody McCloud-Missmer, network administrator, behavioral health, and Amie Allanson-Dundon, network director for clinical therapy services, discussed St. Luke's University Health Network’s YESS! school-based therapy program.

YESS!—which stands for Your Emotional Strength Supported!—embeds mental health treatment in schools and aims to “break down the barriers for students who were not able to access mental health services outside of the school day.”

The panelists noted the importance of updating state and federal reimbursement for mental health treatment to improve access and cover the cost of care. Michael Hopkins, president and CEO, Children's Service Center of the Wyoming Valley, also discussed the workforce challenges in rural settings.

HAP continues to focus on strategies to support rural health care and access to behavioral health care across Pennsylvania. For more information about rural health, contact Kate Slatt, HAP’s vice president, innovative payment and care delivery.