WESTERLY — The local share of a five-year $9 million grant will be used to increase awareness of mental health issues among students at Westerly High School and Westerly Middle School, as well as to provide related training for school personnel and other adults who interact with the students.
The Project AWARE (Advancing Wellness and Resilience in Education) grant from the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration will also be used to connect students and their families with behavioral health issues to service providers in the area. Schools in Cranston and West Warwick were also announced as recipients of the grant by the state Department of Education, the state Department of Health and the state Department of Youth and Families.
Westerly will receive $1.8 million over the five years of the grant, according to Assistant Superintendent of Schools Alicia Storey.
The first year of the grant will be focused on teaching adults in the schools how to identify students who might need assistance with mental health problems, identifying agencies and organizations to partner with, and developing a plan, Storey said. Work under the grant will be focused mostly on Westerly High School but students at the middle school will also benefit, she said.
Statistics published by the state Department of Health illustrate the need to help students with mental health problems. Mary-Ellen Rossie, director of pupil personnel in Westerly, said the statistics for the period from February 2015 to December 2020 indicate Westerly students had to be transported from their school to a hospital due to mental health issues 64 times. Up to 10 of the transports were due to anxiety; 54 were due to other mental health, behavioral, or psychological disorders; and up to 10 were due to suicide attempts.
Incidents under 10 are rounded up to prevent identification of individual students. From 2008-2020, young people up to the age of 24 committed suicide in 37 out of the state's 39 municipalities.
"When you start to look at the numbers and the reality of it, I think it is stunning so it's important to find as many supports for students and families as we can," Storey said.
The work is particularly important as students and their families continue to deal with the isolation and change in lifestyles caused by the COVID-10 pandemic, Storey said.
"People had anxiety and stress prior to COVID and the timing of this grant, I think, will help families that have additional stressors that were not there prior to COVID," Storey said.
The grant will bolster resources that the high school currently has in place including a school psychologist, 2.5 social workers, a student assistance counselor who works through a contract, and three guidance counselors.
"We will be well positioned, we feel, to develop a mental health model that will easily integrate into our comprehensive multi-tiered system of support framework," she said.
A previous round of the grant was awarded to Pawtucket, Providence and Woonsocket in 2018. Storey said local officials will look to those districts for guidance on how to develop the program.
"This is a great opportunity for the district to learn from past successes of Project Aware," she said.