Mental health care programs expand to 21 new school districts in Iowa

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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (KCRG) More than 70,000 students in eastern Iowa school districts will have access to more mental health services starting this fall.

A digital sign outside of the Grant Wood Area Education Agency's office (Jordee Kalk/KCRG)

On Monday, the Grant Wood Area Education Agency announced new pilot programs to help students. It will serve 21 new school districts that have few mental health services.

The idea started about a year ago when Grant Wood AEA set a goal to expand access to mental health care. That’s especially for rural areas, where waiting lists to see a counselor can reach seven months.

"It doesn't matter if it’s a small, large, close or near a metro area, you can have access to mental health services,” John Speer, Grant Wood AEA Chief Administrator, said.

Now, a new program puts licensed counselors in schools where they can work with students, families, and teachers. For districts that already have similar programs, like Mount Vernon, those schools will now have more options for students that are in crisis.

"We need to continue to build that capacity for our staff to respond to kids,” Greg Batenhorst, Mount Vernon Community Schools Superintendent, said.

The J-FAST, or Juvenile and Family Assistance Stabilization program, puts students directly in contact with staff from Foundation 2. At Mount Vernon, Batenhorst says the staff is dealing with more students who struggle with anxiety, depression, and trauma.

"This is my 36th year in education and just to see, I never imagined when I started and walked into a classroom in 1984 that I would see these kinds of mental health challenges,” Batenhorst said.

That program starts next month. And through these additional services, educators hope they'll be able to better spot children in need.

Grant Wood AEA paid $30,000 for the J-FAST program. The agency will also give $5,000 a year to districts who want a mental health counselor to come to its schools. Those counselors will bill a family's insurance. In most cases, the child is on Medicaid.