Emergency Relief Funding a Lifeline to Behavioral Health Supports for Vancouver Students

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On Dan Jass’ first day as the Director of Child and Youth Services for Lifeline Connections in 2020, all K–12 school buildings across Washington state closed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Washington-based organization has provided mental health and substance use disorder services to adults since 1962, and Jass was hired in the Vancouver office to expand those services to youth and children. In coordination with Vancouver Public Schools, Lifeline Connections counselors continued serving students over virtual meetings or phone calls throughout the height of the pandemic.

Jass said the need for those services was “enormous” at that time.

“For a lot of the kids, their school-based people were their only contact — their friends, their support, their teachers,” Jass said. Many students were “getting cut off from almost their entire social network.”

With the help of federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funding that the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) prioritized and distributed to community-based organizations (CBOs), Lifeline Connections will be able to expand its services for students. The organization will hire a new counseling team that will serve Hudson’s Bay High School starting in the 2022–23 school year. The high school had previously been relying on Fort Vancouver High School’s counseling team for services.

The counseling team at Hudson’s Bay — consisting of one mental health professional and one substance use disorder professional — will devote particular attention to serving a program that supports students who are pregnant or parenting.

“Kids come from all over the district to Hudson’s Bay for that program,” Jass said. “The mental health needs in that program are really high.”

Counselors will also work with students in the program to identify and access community resources.

Outside of the program, the counseling team will work to assess and treat mental health needs and prevent substance use disorders amongst all students. For students impacted by substance use disorders, Jass said one of the best ways to break that cycle is to improve students’ self-esteem.

“If they’re feeling better about themselves, and they feel like they’ve got power, and they feel like they’ve got choices, they’re much less likely to choose drugs,” Jass said. “Statistics say the longer we can delay that first use, the less likely they are to develop some kind of addiction later in life.”

Lifeline Connections’ prevention efforts also focus on education.

“A lot of young people just don’t understand how substances are affecting their body, how it’s affecting their future,” Jass said.

Other subjects that counselors are supporting students with include gender identity and sexual orientation. The counseling teams themselves include members of the LGBTQ+ community, Jass said, enabling them to connect with students from a basis of lived experience.

After receiving support from the counseling team, students seeking these services at Fort Vancouver High School got together to ask the school for an additional gender-neutral bathroom.

“Through the network they created with each other, they were able to really make their voice heard,” Jass said. “The district just announced they’ve changed their mind; they’re going to put it in.”

Though the work of providing mental health and substance use disorder services to youth may be challenging, Jass said his passion for it hasn’t waned over the course of his 30-year career.

“It’s such an amazing time of life, and it’s a time when all the narratives we have that keep us thinking bad things about ourselves aren’t cemented yet,” Jass said. There’s “good you can do in helping a young person to think differently about themselves. It’s enormous, how much change you can see when kids get that kind of attention.”

This story is the third in a four-part series that features community-based organizations across Washington and the projects and programs they have been able to implement with support from federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief and American Rescue Plan funds.

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The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction

The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction

Led by Supt. Chris Reykdal, OSPI is the primary agency charged with overseeing K–12 education in Washington state.