By Brittany Anderson
HAYS COUNTY — Hays County leaders are continuing to find ways to fund mental health initiatives for its youngest residents.
During the regular Hays County Commissioners Court meeting on Oct. 11, the court discussed using American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds for behavioral health resources in Hays County school districts.
According to the National Association for Mental Illness (NAMI), approximately one in five students (20%) in the United States experiences a clinical mental health disorder each year. However, it takes on average 11 years to identify a mental health condition for a child.
Eric Boehning of Ardurra Group, which serves as the program manager for the Hays County ARPA Program, said that $200,000 will be directed to Hays CISD, Wimberley ISD and Dripping Springs ISD to support both mental health services and substance abuse services.
School districts will submit an application for grant funds to the county, which can be utilized for hiring mental health or substance use personnel, including fringe benefits, or to contract with a provider of mental health or substance use services.
“As noted by the U.S. Treasury, COVID-19 has exacerbated these behavioral health issues in schools, so this project is well within the lines of the American Rescue Plan,” Boehning said.
Pct. 4 Commissioner Walt Smith, who sponsored the item, said that funding will come from ARPA fund allocations made to Pct. 2 and 4 for Hays CISD, Pct. 3 for Wimberley ISD and Pct. 4 for Dripping Springs ISD.
“It was really important to me to try to address issues that are in our school districts prior to them becoming an issue,” Smith said, commending Dripping Springs ISD on establishing a mental health program prior to COVID, and Wimberley ISD for being adamant in looking to implement a mental health resource center.
“These ISDs don’t have resources specifically for counseling,” Smith continued. “We’ve got families coming forward, and whenever they try to get a substance abuse counselor, they’re told that it’s going to be three, four months wait time before we can get those. … That’s the reason I wanted to include the flexibility in this agenda item to allow those school districts to mold and create a program of usage that they can administer in a thoughtful way to address their issues.”
Pct. 1 Commissioner Debbie Ingalsbe said that she would be reaching out to the San Marcos CISD superintendent about applying for the grant, saying she believes it’s important that every school has the opportunity to receive these funds. Smith agreed, noting that funding for San Marcos CISD would come from the Pct. 1 allocation.
The recent fentanyl crisis in Hays CISD has also brought the need for substance abuse counseling to the forefront. Later in the meeting, commissioners unanimously approved funding to the Hays County Sheriff’s Office for education and outreach equipment and materials related to the opioid crisis.
In the last two months, four Hays CISD students have died due to fentanyl. Hays County Deputy Anthony Nipolito said that in September there were 10 overdoses, although no one passed away “thanks to the quick response of our first responders and EMS partners.”
According to the Sheriff’s Office, funding will be used for a variety of items such as:
• Create/purchase materials for PSAs.
• Purchase editing software for digital content.
• Purchase equipment to produce educational/informative digital content.
• Develop and produce a program similar to Shattered Dreams.
• Work with outside entities to develop peer-to-peer focus groups throughout the county.
• Work with elementary schools throughout the county to develop a drug education program.
“We’re trying to get in front of as many people as we possibly can to educate and inform our citizens about the poisonings,” Nipolito said. “Whatever we can possibly use this money for, [to]be creative to try and get this message out. … We know we’re not going to save everybody, but if we save one person at every presentation we go to, we’re doing a great job.”
Smith, who also sponsored this item alongside Pct. 2 Commissioner Mark Jones, said that they have identified grant funding that may be possible, but also spoke to the budget office to identify an offset for funding the program. The amount requested is listed as ‘not to exceed $20,000.’
“Obviously Hays County is our priority, but other areas within Central Texas have taken notice about what we’re doing down here in the Sheriff’s Office,” Nipolito said. “We’re doing what we can, and it’s being noticed throughout the region. With this funding, we want to continue this fight.”