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CUSD joins pilot program on youth mental health

Tribune - 2/23/2024

Feb. 22—Chandler Unified School District is part of a pilot program with the Jed Foundation to address the rise of youth mental health issues.

The program is called District Comprehensive Approach, and JED plans to try it out at 18 districts across the nation.

"I'm just incredibly grateful that each of the 18 districts that are within our pilot, their superintendents and their district leadership have expressed a commitment to really do this work and improve mental health outcomes for the students that they serve," said Tony Walker, the senior vice president of academic programs for JED.

The Jed Foundation was founded in 2000 by a Gilbert couple two years after its founders lost their son Jed to suicide. He was a college student, and most of their efforts have been aimed at helping youth from high school through college.

This pilot program seeks to expand that outreach. It will focus on helping the entire district, including middle and elementary school students as well.

"What I was not able to find was a K-12 way I could serve my colleagues across the country," said Mort Sherman, the associate executive director at the School Superintendents Association, which is a partner in the pilot program and helped select which districts would be involved.

"This idea of working with JED and trying to figure out how to make it work was a response to an expressed and felt need that I heard from hundreds of superintendents across the country."

JED is funding the pilot program to see if they can expand what they've been doing for 24 years for an entire district.

"We work with school systems to help them build the infrastructure and systems of support that are needed to be in place in order for young people to thrive," Walker said. "We call it a comprehensive approach to youth mental health and suicide prevention."

Sherman said that more than 40 districts applied to be part of the pilot program. They cut it down to about 20, then JED selected the 18 districts.

They wanted a diverse selection, some urban, some suburban, some affluent, some rural, and each with diverse students. They also picked districts based on their geography, so they weren't all from one part of the country.

Teen suicide and mental health issues have grown in recent years, prompting all districts to consider ways they can help.

A 2017 national survey more than 1 in 4 youth between 18 and 25 are living with a mental health issue. Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for Americans between 15 and 24 years of age. Nearly 1 in 5 teens admitted to having thoughts of suicide in the previous year in a 2017 survey.

Those numbers go up for minority populations, with higher instances for Black and LGBT youth.

CUSD has invested $5 million to address teen mental health, including partnering with the Hope Institute to start this school year.

The Hope Institute is based at Perry High School and acts as a short-term mental health facility to get students past a crisis point to where they can work on their issues with another agency long-term.

Natasha Davis, the director of counseling and social services for the district, said that preliminary data is encouraging, as the Hope Institute approached six months since it opened at the end of August.

She said the district is not ready to release that data at this time, as it is still being reviewed by the Hope Institute.

JED's pilot program is a work in progress. The foundation plans to work only with officials in the district office and will be willing to make changes based on need.

"We hear every day from superintendents and mental health leaders across the country that these are real needs in their schools every single day," Walker said.

"Chandler Unified is proud to be an inaugural participant in this program, and we look forward to working with JED and AASA to enhance the school experience for our students and maximize their full potential as we build a community of care around all children," CUSD Superintendent Frank Narducci said.

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(c)2024 East Valley Tribune (Mesa, Ariz.)

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