A new program will give 100 New York City schools extra mental health training

The conversation about infusing New York City schools with mental health services often centers around “community school” programs that pour extra funding into low-performing schools and provide social workers or health clinics.

But what about schools that aren’t in those programs, yet could still benefit from access to mental health resources?

The Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services is launching a program — called the 100 Schools Project — partly in an attempt to address that gap.

Starting this month, the program will connect community based organizations to 10 middle and high schools spread over Brooklyn and the Bronx that will help train teachers and other staff members to recognize signs of distress and funnel students into the right mental health, behavioral intervention or substance abuse programs. The initiative is expected to reach 50 schools by January 2017 and 100 later that year.

“Schools that have additional funding like community schools [or] Renewal schools are likely to have school-based mental health,” said David Rivel, CEO of the Jewish Board. “What’s different about this project is the scope of it.” It will serve “ordinary public schools that don’t have special funding streams.”

Unlike programs that install mental health clinics within schools themselves, the 100 Schools Project will instead focus on making sure existing school personnel — including teachers, guidance counselors, and administrators — are better prepared to identify students who are grappling with depression, for instance, or addiction.

“Schools are woefully ill-equipped, for the most part, to handle [mental health] issues,” Rivel said. “That’s how you get the panicky call to 911 and families and their children don’t get the help that they need.”

The project is funded through federal dollars earmarked for healthcare providers to find ways to reduce costs. In this case, a group of four local hospital systems gave roughly $11.5 million of that funding to the Jewish Board to coordinate the 100 Schools Project as a way of addressing mental health problems before they turn into full-blown crises that require more expensive emergency care.

John Kastan, the Jewish Board’s chief program officer, said the group is still figuring out how to assess whether the program works, but will likely look at indicators such as 911 calls and referral patterns to health care providers.

For now, the program is slated to run until at least the 2019-20 school year, with the possibility that it could be expanded and continue into the future.

“We’re not providing services to the kids, we’re providing the education and competence to the school staff,” Kastan noted. “[There’s] no reason that it couldn’t be something that’s scalable.”