$4.5 million grant will help Muskegon County students, teachers and families struggling with trauma, educators say

The MAISD recently received a $4.5 million grant for mental health support. Photo by Anna Gustafson

With about one-third of Muskegon County residents facing some type of childhood trauma, local school and health officials are determined to better support children and families who are struggling, as well as the educators working with them—and a $4.5 million federal grant will go a long way in helping them do so, Muskegon Area Intermediate School District (MAISD) Superintendent John Severson said.

The MAISD—which serves 11 public school districts in Muskegon County—was one of about 20 educational organizations around the country to be awarded the five-year, $4.5 million “Project Prevent” grant from the U.S. Department of Education. The funding is designed to help prevent youth violence and mitigate the impact of violence in communities by integrating mental health supports in schools.

In Muskegon, the grant will allow the district to hire five behavior systems coaches in an effort to better meet the mental health needs of students in all of Muskegon County’s schools by, for example, providing resources and training to teachers, Severson said. Too, it will allow for the district to continue to partner with such community organizations as HealthWest, Hackley Community Care and the Muskegon Department of Health and Human Services to provide students, teachers and families with mental health support, according to the superintendent.

“For our county, this is a big game-changer,” Severson said of the grant. “We have a lot of kids and families who have gone through significant trauma. These trauma events are overwhelming, and they have a lot of negative impacts on individuals: feelings of helplessness, powerlessness. When you have high levels of trauma, it impacts how kids learn and function.”

According to HealthWest’s most recent “ACES Muskegon Community Report,” which uses data from 2016, a little more than 31 percent of the 2,252 Muskegon County residents surveyed experienced at least four or more “adverse and traumatic childhood experiences,” otherwise known as ACEs—which is more than twice the national average.

The survey reported close to 23 percent of respondents had experienced sexual abuse as a child, about 22 percent said they were physically abused as children, a little more than 35 percent lived with someone who was a “problem drinker or alcoholic, or who used street drugs” as children, and about 32 percent of respondants said a household member was depressed, mentally ill, or attempted suicide while they were growing up.

This trauma, Severson explained, can lead to a variety of mental health challenges for students, from depression to suicidality and much more. 

Across Muskegon County, organizations and community members are working to address trauma; in 2016, for example, a four-year, $4 million federal grant allowed HealthWest, Hackley Community Care, the MAISD and other community groups to work together to equip professionals with trauma-specific interventions. Because of this grant and the collaboration that ensued, the number of behavioral clinicians inside Muskegon County schools grew from three to 23 in the past three years, school officials said.

As that grant wraps up, Severson said the new funding will allow the MAISD and its local partners to build upon the inroads they made with that to create a mental health system that officials hope will deter violence, empower students, connect teachers and families with needed resources, and more.

“What’s really exciting about this it’s a very collaborative grant,” Severson said. “The ISD receives this grant, but it reflects the collaborative work happening in our county. We’re stronger together.”

Too, Severson emphasized its these partnerships that paved the way for the new round of federal funding.

“I believe the reason we received the grant is because of the collaborative work we’re doing in our county,” the superintendent said. “We’ve demonstrated a strong ability to work with others. We recognize we can’t handle these complex problems alone.”

Severson emphasized that the issues of trauma “are there and they’re growing.”

“We have to do a better job of being a trauma-informed community and recognize trauma impacts many of the things we’re seeing that are negative, whether it’s violence, depression, or people who are later not successful with their jobs,” he said.

With the additional resources, everyone from behavioral clinicians to teachers and other staff members will be able to reach many more students—and that is something that not only impacts students, educators and families but the entire community, Severson emphasized.

“I’m really proud of our relationships with HealthWest, Hackley Community Care, DHHS, and other groups; we’re becoming more of a trauma-informed county,” Severson said. “Still, we need to do more purposeful work if we want better outcomes.”

Story by Anna Gustafson, the publisher and editor of Muskegon Times. You can connect with her by emailing MuskegonTimes@gmail.com or on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.

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