Smiles at Graduation: A Student Assistance Program Story

The fellowship hall at my church was the last place I expected to be one Sunday night several years ago. We were meeting there instead of in the sanctuary to grieve and process the suicide of a teen in our church family. As a teacher and a school administrator, I had been part of grieving communities before, but this was different: A son of my own church gone way too early. The leader of the session was from Pine Rest, a local mental health services organization, and he was there not only to help us process the loss but also to tell us about the Church Assistance Program. This program allows any congregation member to get counseling, three sessions per incident, for free anytime through Pine Rest. My church signed up in response to the tragic death. I wondered, What would a school with the same program look like? I approached the leader and asked, “Have you ever thought of doing this with schools?” A year later he called and said they had created a new program called the Student Assistance Program and wondered if we wanted to join. We did, and it is changing how we teach self-care, how we care for student mental-health issues, and how we discipline, all while contributing to a more positive school culture.

Christian communities often have stigma attached to caring for metal health, and introducing this program allows us a way to talk to kids about how to care for themselves.

The program is easy to set up and use. Annually, we report the number of staff and enrolled families to Pine Rest, and for a small fee per family, we have access to the counseling services, two educational events, emergency response services, and the Pine Rest mental health website. When a student needs mental health services that are beyond the scope of our own school counselors, they call Pine Rest and report that they are a part of our group. They are asked for insurance information so that if counseling goes beyond the three meetings, the services are covered. After that they are matched with a counselor who is an expert in their needs and can attend three sessions for free. Many of the issues that present themselves are resolved in those three sessions, so the free plan is very helpful. All students, staff, and their families are covered by the program, so it extends well beyond the students in our building, providing a comprehensive resource for the community. While our school never receives information about who gets help, we do get a quarterly report of how many people used the services. This data allows us to see trends and make informed decisions about future training for teachers and students.

Joining the Student Assistance Program changed how we talk about mental health at South Christian. It has freed us to normalize mental-health issues and to discuss how working on them is important and valuable. Christian communities often have stigma attached to caring for metal health, and introducing this program allows us a way to talk to kids about how to care for themselves. This is reinforced in our health classes, which make use of Pine Rest’s website. The website has vetted and researched advice on all areas of health that students and families can access. It also allows us to offer mental-health training for our teachers and students. We have done suicide awareness sessions with our student body and anxiety training for teachers through the program. Slowly, we are removing the stigma of caring for mental health that was prevalent before using the program. [This is only part of the article. Want to read more? Subscribe to the website by choosing "Register" from the menu above. It's free!]

Jim Peterson is the head of school at South Christian High School in Byron Center, Michigan. He also serves as a school designer for Teaching for Transformation with CACE, the Center for Advancement of Christian Education. He was a science and math teacher, a technology coordinator, a district administrator, and a camp director before his current role. He and his wife, Rebecca, have four children and a grandson.