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Youth Health Services hosts Open Site visit at PCHS

At the Pocahontas County High School Open Site Visit hosted by Youth Health Service last Wednesday, YHS co-director Peggy Johnson spoke about the history of YHS providing the Expanded School Mental Health program to Pocahontas, Randolph and Tucker counties. Joining Johnson on stage were, from left, YHS co-director Tammy Rizzio and Tiffany Pittman, school mental health and technical assistance coordinator at Marshall University. S. Stewart photo

Suzanne Stewart
Staff Writer

Youth Health Services held an open site visit at Pocahontas County High School last Wednesday to provide information on the Expanded School Mental Health Program which serves Pocahontas, Randolph and Tucker counties.

YHS, which is based in Elkins, received grant funding and became part of the pilot project to provide mental health services to students in their schools. Prior to the creation of ESMH, students seeking in-depth counseling and therapy had to travel to Elkins, which caused them to miss a half or full day of school.

With ESMH, students are able to speak to a counselor or therapist at their school, missing a minimal amount of the instructional day.

YHS co-director Peggy Johnson explained that her organization has offered services to students for more than 20 years, but it wasn’t until 2008 that they realized the need to provide services at the schools they serve.

Johnson explained that a foster parent, who was driving three children to Elkins from Tucker County three times a week to see a therapist, asked if it was possible to provide the service at the children’s schools.

“Fast forward a few months and we were blessed to be part of the Expanded School Mental Health pilot project and to have our three schools in Tucker County funded through this wonderful opportunity,” she said. “Now through that, the core teams were born. The core teams included parents, the student assistance team, the school nurse and counselors, Youth Health therapists and leadership, and a representative from the local comprehensive mental health center.”

The core teams help ensure the students’ needs are met and that prevention and intervention programs are offered at all the schools covered by the ESMH grant.

“We’ve seen growth and advancements in the prevention and early intervention,” Johnson said. “We have the ability to respond to school crisis, to access scarce services through tele-medicine. We’ve seen a reduction in missed class time as well as year-round access to mental health care and family support. I think this is so important – because the ESMH model provides for universal support for all students, we have seen the stigma associated with mental health care reduce and more kids getting the help they need earlier.”

Tiffany Pittman, school mental health and technical assistance coordinator at Marshall University explained the model which outlines ESMH services and how students are served on many levels.

“It’s a three-tiered model,” she said. “The first and basic piece of it is prevention. It should reach all students in a school. We’re talking about things like substance abuse prevention, suicide prevention, things like that. Then [on the second tier] we look at early intervention. These are students who might need just a little extra support to be successful – not necessarily therapy or anything like that – but maybe tutoring or coping strategies or something along that line.

“Then on the third level is the intensive services – that is therapy,” she continued. “That’s what you think of as mental health treatment. All three of these are not linear. They should be happening basically at the same time.”

Pittman said that through the use of the three-tier program, students have shown improvement and statistics show that the more tier one and tier two support they get, the less tier three is needed. Also, statistics show exactly how much time is saved from having on-site programs at the schools.

“We did tracking on the number of therapy sessions in a year versus the number of students who would have missed a half or full day of school and we came up with 25,000 days of school saved over a two year period,” she said.

Nikki Tennis, of the West Virginia Bureau of Behavioral Health and Health Facilities at the Department of Health and Human Resources, echoed the stats and shared information collected about the services provided in 2017.

“We’re lucky to have 69,000 encounters in that green [first] tier in 2017 with our Expanded School Mental Health sites,” she said. “Tier two is where there is that early intervention. There were more than 8,000 of those encounters in 2017. Then, in the top tier, there were 748. More than 14,000 students benefited from Expanded School Mental Health in this school year.”

ESMH grant coordinator Peggy Stull reported on the programs offered, specifically in Pocahontas County, which include intervention and prevention to keep students on the right track and help identify students in need of more intensive care.

Those programs include training to recognize signs of suicidal behavior, after-school and summer programs and a cognitive behavioral therapy group called Dinosaur School.

Stull added that she works on several collaborations with other organizations to provide assistance to students.

“It would not be possible without each of you that are in this room,” she said to the gathered group.

Those collaborations include Kinetic Connections, Family Resource Network, Community Care of West Virginia, Pocahontas County Commission, Shayna Meadows Therapy and Wellness, Family Resource Center, Pocahontas County Prevention Coalition, Department of Health and Human Resources, school staff and administrators, law enforcement, juvenile and probation judges, local churches and community organizations.

Suzanne Stewart may be contacted at

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