Mental telehealth services will be offered at Dickinson middle school next Fall

When it comes to behavioral health services for youth, there is a shortage of them for Southwestern North Dakota, but a health provider in the Dickinson area is stepping in to help.

“I just know that we have kids right now that on the occasion that try to get help,  but they are unable to, or it is delayed significantly,” said Marcus Lewton, Dickinson Middle School principal.

Dickinson Middle School has a little more than 850 students, and Lewton said that over the last couple of years he has seen an increase in behavioral health issues with the students.

“Anxiety and depression are the two we would see the most,” said Lewton.

He said right now some parents have to wait more than a month to be seen by a mental health professional in the area, and they often have to travel to bigger cities like Bismarck or Fargo to get their child immediate assistance.

“That is usually a day and often some of our families can’t afford that,” said Lewton. 

The principal added that traveling out of town to receive mental health care also requires the parents to pull the child out of school for a day, or even more. 

For the last two years, the Southwestern District Health Unit in Dickinson, ND has been working with the Center for Psychiatric Health in Grand Forks, ND, offering mental telehealth services (telepsych) to families in the Southwest region out of their facility. 

They now want to offer this service to the middle school in Dickinson. 

“Saving time parents have to take off work. . . saving time kids have to take off from school. . . and hopeful that will also be a win,” said Sherry Adams, executive officer of SWDHU.

The pilot program will start at the middle school on September 17, 2019, and families will be able to receive the service on-site at the middle school, so students don’t have to be pulled out of school.

Lewton said they haven’t decided on space yet for the mental telehealth service, but they will dedicate two adjoining rooms to it. 

One will serve as a waiting room where families can get checked in, and the other would be used for the actual service. 

Adams said a nurse will be on site to check patients in, take down medical history, set up the service with the psychiatrist, and manage cases. 

Appointments will be scheduled once a week on Tuesdays mornings, and Adams said if the demand is their appointments could be extended to the afternoon, or even a second day during the week. 

The first session will be about an hour, so patients can be fully evaluated, and a parent or guardian also has to present for the first session.

Subsequent sessions will be about 15 minutes, and parents or guardians can call in for those.

Adams said the service isn’t just convenient for families, but it also offers families psychiatric care, which there is a shortage of in the state, and even the nation. 

“These are actually medical doctors that can prescribe medication, but also do diagnoses,” said Adams. 

The executive officer said parents can set up appointments with the Center for Psychiatric Health by themselves, and the middle school counselors and SWDHU will assist families with any questions they may have.

The program is primarily for the middle school’s students, so they can see if symptoms like depression, anxiety, and suicidal tendencies decrease in high students over the next two years.

“Those main things we hope to catch at an earlier age and get them additional resources,” said Adams

However, Adams said families from the high school or other schools in the area can take part in the service at the middle school if they are in need of immediate assistance, but those families can also receive the mental telehealth service at SWDHU facility. 

Adams said right now there is no funding for the program, and the nurses at the SWDHU are volunteering their time to assist with it.

However, she’s already talked to Sen.Rich Wardner of District 37 in Dickinson about getting funding for the program through the human services budget for the next biennium if it proves to be successful. 

The money could be used to hire additional staff, so it could be offered by more schools in the Dickinson area, but most of all she hopes it becomes a model and a resource for other rural schools in North Dakota. 

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