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With new federal funds, C.O. hopes to become ‘model for state’ for school mental health resources

(Update: adding video, comments from High Desert Service District)

REDMOND, Ore. (KTVZ) -- Central Oregon educators will get nearly a million dollars in federal funding for mental health resources.

Jim Boen, regional director of mental and behavioral health with the High Desert Education Service District, said Monday the attention and resources are long overdue.

“The second-leading cause of death among 10-15 year olds is suicide, and that’s just not acceptable,” Boen said. 

Boen is in his first year as regional director, but he's worked in education for more than 20 years, and said the isolation and stress of the pandemic has taken its toll.

“That has caused a lot of mental health anxiety and issues that have kind of come to the surface,” Boen said. “It’s not like it wasn’t an issue before, but the pandemic has brought it more to the surface than what it was.”

Amber McGill is a culture of care coach with the High Desert ESD, providing mental health coaching to staff in all three Central Oregon counties.

“There’s a point where we kind of, we can handle so much, and then kind of reach that breaking point -- and everyone has a breaking point right? And now that breaking point is, we get to it much more quickly,” McGill said. “It’s harder. We're just living in chronic stress.”

With the High Desert ESD now getting $900,000 in federal funding, McGill believes they can make systemic changes to improve mental health services in education.

“So for u,s I think we’re able to maybe even move a little bit beyond our little Central Oregon space and be a model for the state, is the hope,” McGill said. 

The money will be used to hire more and better pay their staff, and to continue coaching the existing staff on how trauma affects the brain.

“If there are things in the way emotionally that we’re dealing with or struggling with, then our mind isn’t able to focus on learning -- it’s not a priority,” Boen said. 

The goal is to create a more understanding culture with the adults in education, who can pass down the practices they learn to their students.

“The more adults understand that and are in a good place with their own mental health, the better they are going to be able to serve kids,” Boen said. “And again ask the question of, ‘What happened to you?’ rather than, ‘What’s wrong with you?’”

They hope the funds will help to create a conversation, which will help more kids stay safe and succeed.

“When kids aren’t doing well, then they need support. And it’s not because they don’t want to, it’s because they don’t know how,” Boen said. 

The federal funding must be used by the end of this year.

Boen and McGill said they expect many changes between now and then, but they hope to reach as many people in the area as possible.

Article Topic Follows: Education
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Noah Chast

Noah Chast is a multimedia journalist for NewsChannel 21. Learn more about Noah here.

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