Rural schools combat mental healthcare challenges for students

NORTHERN CASS, N.D. (Valley News Live) - "The best thing is we're 25 miles from Fargo, the worst thing is we're 25 miles from Fargo," says Cory Steiner, the superintendent for Northern Cass Schools.

But the distance has only been a problem for rural Cass County families looking for help for kids struggling with mental health issues.

"People will ask me, is it because kids are bad? And no – it's because we know more about mental health," Steiner says.

"It could be to increase self-esteem, it could be because they do have a diagnosis with depression or anxiety. It could be that their family dynamics are changing and it's really difficult to navigate," adds Ashley Krinke, Northern Cass' elementary school counselor.

The majority of mental health resources are found in bigger cities. Fargo's school system has 36 counselors, 6 social workers, 6 student wellness and family facilitators, and 5 psychologists. West Fargo Public Schools has similar numbers. But in northern Cass, it's a different story. The rural school district has three counselors for all 630 learners.

"Often times, the conversation was had with families was – as your school counselors, we're seeing this and we're doing the best we can, but we have 600 students," Krinke says. "We're not trained in all of those different areas."

"When you think about somebody providing mental health services, it usually involves a parent who goes to work, drives back out to northern Cass, takes their child to the appointment, drives back out to northern Cass to drop their child off, and then back to work," says Steiner. "That's a significant barrier – especially for those families where parents can't take time off of work, where they don't have that luxury."

But that's changing, thanks to a new partnership. Now, Cass County's rural students will also have access to mental health services at their schools. The collaboration between the United Way, the Burgum Foundation, and the school districts allows licensed therapists to help students across six rural school districts several times a week.

Teachers say eliminating the barrier between students and mental health services helps the students now and in the future.

"If we can address the mental health things that happen in our students' lives, even at a really young age, if we can give them the stability and support right now – I don't think we're going to have to deal with as many addiction issues later on in their life," Krinke says. "This is one more support to put in place for them so that they don't have to navigate that road through addiction later on in life."

"We think we're going to change the world, and we're going to do it starting in North Dakota," says Steiner. "The success of this program isn't going to be about next year, it'll be 10 to 15 years down the road when these learners get into adulthood. That's when we know that we've been successful."

Steiner says they hope to keep expanding the program. Within three years, he says he hopes each rural school district will have its own therapist on-site every day.

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