On any given day, there may be many reasons why students at Chief Kanim and Twin Falls Middle School spend half an hour with Melinda Johnson. Some may see Johnson for the first time to talk about why they’ve received a number of unexcused absences; others may be following up on progress toward goals they’ve set, or working to identify individual strengths to help them improve in school.
Johnson is not a school counselor. She is a Child and Family Therapist at Sound Mental Health, working with the Snoqualmie Valley School District to pilot a new model to support students’ mental health: screening, brief intervention, and referral to treatment or services (SBIRT):
- Using a series of motivational interviewing questions, screening in their first session helps Johnson identify student’s goals and whether substance use or other mental health concerns are getting in the way.
- If screening shows a need, several brief interventions follow. In these short conversations, Johnson focuses on each student’s strengths and abilities to cope with stress and meet their goals. If needed, Johnson may include sessions with a student’s parent or caregiver.
- If a student needs additional support, Johnson gives a referral to assessment, treatment, or other services. These referrals are unique to each student’s need, ranging from leadership development programs to chemical dependency treatment.
While conversations follow a model, each student receives individualized support from Johnson, focused on their unique needs and strengths. Snoqualmie Valley is among several districts in King County that are piloting the SBIRT model in middle schools. Later this month, Best Starts for Kids will release a Request for Interest from schools for funding to plan launching SBIRT in their school. The Portland-based organization Reclaiming Futures developed the SBIRT model. Best Starts for Kids will use the model through a license agreement with Reclaiming Futures and Portland State University.
Reaching more students
From coping with stress and social pressure to the appearance of mental health needs, many middle schoolers benefit from mental health support as they find their way through adolescence. However, school counselors often do not have time to support every student. One of the SBIRT model’s strengths is its ability to reach students who might not normally receive attention.
“A lot of times counselors are seeing their best, high achieving students or their most struggling students,” said Johnson. “SBIRT actually gets a lot of students who are in the middle zone that school counselors don’t have time to connect with.”
Using the model, Johnson can connect with students who otherwise might not receive support. In short sessions, called brief interventions, students set goals and learn coping skills based on their individual strengths and abilities.
“Some kids will get stressed about academics, but not in sports,” Johnson said, providing an example. “So we take the strengths they use when they’re performing in athletics, and translate that to using those strengths in academics.” For many students, these short sessions are all they need. For those who need more support, Johnson can connect them and their families to the resources they need.
Expanding to more middle schools
Receiving support in their teenage years can have a lifelong impact on young people. By screening and intervening to help students learn about their strengths and develop coping skills, SBIRT can help young people establish a strong foundation for life. That’s why Best Starts is expanding SBIRT into more middle schools across King County.
Later this month, we’ll release a Request for Interest to all 19 school superintendents in King County to fund middle schools to participate in a process to develop a plan to implement SBIRT. This planning process will take place in late summer and fall of 2017. If you work at a King County middle school and are interested in applying, let your superintendent know.
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Photo credit: Stephen Depolo.