The University of Michigan program “Transforming Research into Action to Improve the Lives of Students” finalized its partnership with Detroit Public Schools Community District last week to expand access to mental health care in schools, after successful implementation in Washtenaw County.
TRAILS launched in 2013 when local Ann Arbor area high school community members expressed an overwhelming need for mental health support for students. The program began its partnership with the Ann Arbor Public School district in 2013, and has since expanded to 40 Washtenaw County schools.
TRAILS trains school staff on their practices and cultivates an ongoing partnership for over a year to provide implementation support.
Andrew Nalepa, a school psychologist at Skyline High School, said he has seen the direct benefits from the TRAILS program in Ann Arbor.
“The coaching model and having someone with us to help support us getting the program off the ground was vital to the long-term success,” Nalepa said. “Now we’re completely independent, and we’ve been running groups for six years now. We’re training any new staff that we have come in that wants to participate in delivering the TRAILS program.”
Ray Stoeser, assistant director of special projects for DPSCD, has been working with TRAILS after the district identified a major need for mental and behavioral health support for students in the district. One priority of DPCSD’s 2020 plan is a “whole child commitment,” which promotes the development of students, including ensuring their mental well-being.
“The idea is if students aren’t getting all of their needs met, then they’re not being positioned their best to learn and thrive,” Stoeser said.
Elizabeth Koschmann, TRAILS program director, highlighted the TRAILS website as a resource hub for school professionals who are providing mental health support.
A second pillar of support is the training of TRAILS coaches. Providers are trained not only on the TRAILS clinical approach, but also how to partner with somebody in a school setting to deliver the material independently.
According to Stoeser, over the spring, they surveyed more than 4,000 staff to determine the current state of mental health support across the district. They also surveyed close to 70 percent of all 8-12th grade students to identify students’ mental health needs.
“What we didn’t want to do was try to identify a bunch of programs we think everybody needed and start implementing them without actually knowing what the need is,” Stoeser said. “That’s the first step as to why our partnership with TRAILS has been so powerful because they’re really going to help us know what is the current need.”
Moving forward, TRAILS will begin professional development for school support staff, according to Stoeser. Then, the staff will be able to take the training back to their schools and use it to support students and their unique mental health needs.
Stoeser became involved because of his previous work as a high school teacher.
“One of the things I found as a teacher is that I could write the best lesson that’s ever been, I could have the best relationship with my students, I could come up with the most creative lesson, do all of this work to be the best teacher possible,” Stoeser said. “When my students were coming into class and they were having some severe mental health needs that were not being met, it wouldn’t matter how good of a teacher I was, it wouldn’t matter how great of a lesson plan I had, if student’s basic needs aren’t being met … they wouldn’t be able to learn at the level they could.”
Public Policy junior Kelli Martin serves as the president of Generation Mental Health. Through her work, she is familiar with TRAILS and its partnership with DPSCD. Martin said educators’ acknowledgement of mental health is important for the growth of students.
“We want these students to learn at their highest potential, we want these students to perform at their highest potential, but how can we expect that from them if their mental health issues are not being recognized by their school faculty, addressed by their school faculty, and most importantly, being treated by their school faculty?” Martin said. “This is why the (TRAILS) training is so important.”
Stoeser noted how the stigma that surrounds mental health makes it difficult for students to thrive.
“It’s often hidden behind the scenes and it has such an impact on a student’s ability to learn and thrive and be successful,” Stoeser said. “Just like it’s important to have nurses in every school that can meet the physical health needs of students, we need mental health professionals to meet the mental health needs of the students.”