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Salt Lake City School District, Odyssey House offers mental health aid to students struggling during pandemic

SHARE Salt Lake City School District, Odyssey House offers mental health aid to students struggling during pandemic
An illustration of a school under lockdown.

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SALT LAKE CITY — Concerned by student mental health issues exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, Salt Lake City School District is partnering with a Utah support group to provide free telehealth services to students.

“We know that right now many of our students are dealing with depression, anxiety, peer struggles and other mental health issues,” said Larry Madden, interim superintendent for Salt Lake City School District. “We know these issues have been exacerbated as families and students have dealt with the COVID-19 pandemic and the statewide school dismissal.”

The 2020 school year was hit hard by the pandemic. In-person classes ended abruptly, activities and social groups were cut short, friends were separated from one another and sports were canceled across the board, spurring a great deal of stress and uncertainty for K-12 students in the state.

Acknowledging this, Salt Lake City District is partnering with treatment center Odyssey House to better care for students’ mental health needs through free summer telehealth school-based therapy. These services are being funded through grants from the Salt Lake County Behavioral Health and the Department of Human Services Suicide Prevention.

Christina Zidow, Odyssey House chief operating officer, said youth and their families are struggling “now more than ever” with mental health issues. In a statement, she voiced that Odyssey House is eager to be a part of the solution.

Randall Carlisle, Odyssey House media and community affairs specialist, said services opened up last week and so far there’s been two requests. He said telehealth treatment services for students will go on as long as needed as Salt Lake City District schools plan next steps.

There are six therapists at Odyssey House who specifically deal with students and schools, and upon reopening, they will return to providing in-person services in schools if permitted to do so, he said.

The telehealth services are free to all students who are not already covered by Medicaid or another form of health service. Students who do have health coverage are still invited to use the services through their health insurance provider.

Carlisle said sessions will be conducted based off of the devices the kids and their families have on hand, whether that be Zoom or FaceTime. He pointed out that he hopes the services will reach the disproportionate number of minority families who are being adversely impacted by the pandemic. At least two of the six therapists are fluent in both Spanish and English.

Carlisle said the pandemic has caused a myriad of struggles for students.

“Depression is significant, which is an outward sign of a lack of companionship in terms of friends. Lack of structure in their lives, lack of knowing what’s going to happen — the uncertainty for the future,” he said. “Sometimes kids are left alone at home and are struggling with that because they have to take care of other siblings.”

Substance abuse spurred by boredom and a lack of supervision for older kids is another issue that therapists are prepared to help deal with, he said. As is suicide ideation, which is something they’ve dealt with in schools previously and will continue to do so when schools reopen.

“We are all dealing with something we’ve never dealt with before. A lot of issues come up, and that’s where a behavioral health organization like ours can be very helpful,” Carlisle said.

This is not the first time that Odyssey House has partnered with the district. The two institutions have teamed up in the past to provide mental health services to students attending Wasatch Elementary and the Salt Lake School for the Performing Arts, which are both members of Salt Lake City School District.

Interested students who are a part of the district can set up an appointment with a therapist by making a request online.

“We are excited about being able to expand our services like this because there’s a real need, especially with the problems that exist today,” Carlisle said. “It’s the uncertainty about all of our future that causes these concerns. If we can help in any way we are glad to be part of it.”