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Roaring Fork High School principal raising funds for student mental health program

Nelson Harvey
Post Independent Contributor

CARBONDALE — Students at Roaring Fork High School have an urgent need for mental health and substance abuse counseling that’s not being met with current resources, according to Principal Drew Adams.

To combat the problem, Adams is spearheading a campaign to raise $30,000 toward the amount needed to put a full time counselor from the Aspen Hope Center at students’ disposal during the coming school year.

On Tuesday, the Carbondale trustees chipped in with a donation of $10,600 to support Adams’ effort. At the trustees’ meeting, Adams said the total cost of the program is expected to be $45,000, and that the balance over $30,000 will come from unnamed benefactors.

“I think it’s needed in all of our schools, to insure the wellness of our school-age children and our young adults,” said Carbondale Mayor Stacey Bernot about the program.

“If these kids aren’t going to school and being active, it’s also a financial loss for the school,” she said, noting that schools are funded by the district depending on the number of students they have.

The grant from the town of Carbondale came from money raised through liquor and medical marijuana license fees, as well as money freed up by the closure last fall of the drug and alcohol detox facility run by Colorado West Mental Health Center in Glenwood Springs. Carbondale, like other area governments, had been contributing to Colorado West’s budget.

In addition to providing $10,000 for the program itself, the Carbondale trustees decided to add $600 to help pay for posters or other marketing tools to bring attention to the program in the schools.

Trustee John Hoffmann, who proposed the addition at the meeting, suggested that some of the money could be used as a prize for a school-wide poster contest, as a way of increasing student awareness and participation.

Adams said he first realized the need for more counseling services at Roaring Fork High School (RFHS) during the second semester of the last school year, when The Aspen Hope Center, an Aspen-based crisis prevention nonprofit, donated the services of a counselor to meet with students for a few hours just one day each week.

“A significant number of referrals were being made by teachers, and the counselor was only there for a limited number of hours, so she was only able to consult with about 12 kids,” Adams said. “I determined there was a significant need for additional hours.”

High school students face a range of mental health issues, from depression and anxiety to family trauma like divorce. Those issues, Adams said, are often both treated with and compounded by drugs and alcohol, which has a direct effect on a student’s academic performance.

“It’s often evident that attendance issues are related to something bigger that’s going on in a student’s life,” Adams said.

Today, there’s just one guidance counselor on staff to serve Roaring Fork’s 310 students. Aspen High School and Glenwood Springs high school both have two counselors apiece to serve their larger student populations.

“We often don’t have an opportunity to address mental health issues with our current counselors,” said Roaring Fork School District Superintendent Diana Sirko. “They are dealing with college counseling, and this is more mental health support for kids.”

At Basalt High School, The Aspen Hope Center has funded a mental health counselor since the 2011/2012 school year, and Adams hopes to model the Roaring Fork High School program after the effort now under way in Basalt.

In that program, a counselor screens every student at the beginning of the school year, then follows up individually with regular counseling or a referral to other kinds of treatment.

“Counselors see kids every day, and then they follow up with their families,” said Michelle Muething, program director at the Aspen Hope Center. “A lot of these kids don’t need six years worth of therapy, they just need someone to make sure that they don’t wind up in crisis.

The Basalt Program has the potential to be self-funded, since Basalt High School has a school-based health center and students with insurance coverage can bill their insurance providers for counseling services.

Adams said he hopes to set up a similar system at Roaring Fork High School.

“The clinician saw something like 110 students last year [in Basalt],” Adams said, representing about a quarter of the student body.

To supplement the funding from the Town of Carbondale, Adams and Sirko are currently in talks with local nonprofit organizations like the Aspen Community Foundation, as well as Valley View hospital in Glenwood Springs.

The school district, Sirko said, doesn’t have money in its budget to fund such a position.

Even if she and Adams can only raise enough cash for a part time counselor at Roaring Fork during the coming school year, Sirko said, they plan to put that counselor in place to begin serving students as soon as possible.

That way, she said, the school will also have a track record and statistics to show to other potential donors in the fall of 2014.

Depending on the amount of cash the pair can raise, Adams said he would eventually like to see the hired counselor shared between several Carbondale schools.

“This could extend into the middle school, and if we’re able to pull together the financing that’s required, it could be in a number of different schools,” he said.

Reporter John Colson contributed to this report


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