Thinking of First Aid

Santa Fe Public Schools hopes a new grant will improve access to mental health services for Native students, while improving district-wide vigilance

Santa Fe Public Schools wants to deliver first aid training to high schoolers across the city—though not the kind that comes with a white, metal box emblazoned with a red cross.

“The more we train our youth to recognize signs and symptoms of mental health issues, then we can get them the support that they need,” Sue O’Brien, the district’s director of student wellness, tells SFR.

A grant from the state Public Education Department, O’Brien says, will help bolster that training and support, which already is on offer in each of the district’s schools.

The $9 million grant, is divided among districts serving Santa Fe, Socorro and Farmington. How the money gets split up has yet to be decided.

The plan in Santa Fe is to equip students and staff with skills to identify behavioral health issues with a focus on supporting the district’s Native population, O’Brien says.

“We wanted to do something a little differently and address a population that we knew needed support,” she continues. “I mean all of our students, and particularly with COVID, need support, but we really wanted to have explicit support for our Native American students.”

That support will come through “culturally responsive behavioral health services for our Native American students,” O’Brien tells SFR.

To reach those students, the district will try a new approach. “The training that they’re proposing for this grant that we’re going to implement is a very specific curriculum, which is mental health first aid,” O’Brien says of the fundings’ objective. “You have specific trainers and there are requirements with this curriculum.”

The Public Education Department recently secured the grant through the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. State officials chose the three districts based on a series of factors. The funds come from the administration’s project AWARE (Advancing Wellness and Resiliency in Education).

“We looked at size, demographics and location in the state,” Leslie Kelly, PED’s behavioral health coordinator, writes to SFR in an email. “Since the grant requires increasing and improving mental health systems, infrastructure and services, we needed to select [local education agencies] that could support that, meaning, they had some services already and could support the grant requirements and expansion.”

O’Brien tells SFR that Santa Fe schools already have a robust mental health system. It includes a referral process for behavioral health services in K - 8 schools; Natural Helpers, a peer response program in middle schools working to reduce adolescent suicide rates; and WAVE, a collection of peer-education groups that take on wellbeing issues.

She says the district excels in working with community partners to expand mental health services for students and families.

An original grant application filed by PED that was denied included Las Cruces Public Schools. When the department reapplied, the southern school district opted not to participate. That’s when SFPS stepped in and committed to participate.

The Socorro and Farmington districts also have existing mental health services and partnerships with community agencies, Kelly writes.

The impact of the funding, Kelly writes, will be measured by several metrics: the number of trainings provided and how many staff are trained; increased services which hopefully lead to the reduction of safety related infractions; and new hires of behavioral health clinicians and peer navigators to provide services.

O’Brien acknowledges the unique opportunity the grant provides to Santa Fe’s students: “We really wanted mental health first aid in our schools so that peers can help peers and do it in a healthy way.”

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