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Thursday, December 3, 2020

Whatcom County Council postpones vote on behavioral health services

Motion is still expected to pass, providing crucial programs for students

Council members debate postponing the approval of funds for behavioral health services for Whatcom County students. Health Department officials are concerned that COVID-19 could place an increased demand for mental health programs for students. // Photo by Taylor Bayly

By Taylor Bayly 

Whatcom County Council postponed approval of behavioral health funding to all seven Whatcom County school districts during their July 21 meeting.  Councilmember Tyler Byrd argued that postponing the vote until a later meeting would allow new members of the County Council to learn about the behavioral services fund before putting the motion to a vote. 

The decision to postpone the vote will not delay the disbursement of the funds, Byrd said.   

Through school- and community-based services, such as counseling, drug intervention and behavioral health treatment programs, the health fund seeks to address troubling behavior in students. These behaviors include substance abuse, declining grades or absences, according to the behavioral health fund’s school services report on page 85 of the July 21 Whatcom County Council agenda packet.

“These services are crucial for the students,” Councilmember Carol Frazey said. “I really support all these [services] and I want to make sure that our students have them.” 

Providing mental health services to students has benefits beyond improving grades. In addition to improving mental wellbeing and substance abuse, there are other associated benefits such as a reduction in delinquency and teen pregnancy, according to the behavioral health fund’s school services report.

According to the report, the Whatcom County Health Board has supported behavioral health services for students since October 2013. Upon approval, Whatcom County would spend $836,400 in total, with each of Whatcom’s seven school districts receiving an average of approximately $119,500.  

“We voted on supporting these programs, at least for the six years I’ve been on the council, [and] I think they’re excellent,” Councilmember Kathy Kershner said. 

According to Whatcom’s School Services Report, out of a class of 30 students in Whatcom County, two-thirds of those students experience anxiety. Seven of those students have contemplated suicide and 12 students are dealing with depression. 

“We always say we want to look upstream and help people before they’re incarcerated or help people before their drug addiction, and these are direct services that do help children in the schools,” Frazey said. 

The mental health fund is anticipating a spike in demand for services following school closures due to COVID-19. According to their report, the pandemic has created stress in many households. Heightened anxiety, coupled with isolation and lack of opportunities to socialize, has compounded behavioral and mental health concerns among students. 

After schools closed in March due to the pandemic, mental health services transferred online and over the phone. 

“Large trainings, group services, and community events have largely been put on hold, but services to individuals and families persisted,” according to the school services report

Providing behavioral health services for students is a smart economic decision for the county,  County Executive Satpal Sidhu said. Sidhu noted that early investment in mental health services for students prevents future excessive spending on health programs.

We hear “the success of this program from school counselors, from the court system, and from [the] health department,” Sidhu said. 

Sidhu noted that the behavioral health program is successful in preventing youth from entering into the criminal justice system. 

“Our [incarcerated] juvenile population used to be 140 or something, and last time, it was like less than 10,” Sidhu said. 

According to a report by the Washington office of Superintendent of Public Instruction,  Whatcom County anticipates reopening schools on Sept. 2 through an in-person, online hybrid model. 

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