Mental health challenges are on the rise among young people in Indiana and throughout the United States. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, suicide is the third-leading cause of death for Hoosier youth aged 10 to 24 and the second-leading cause for Hoosiers aged 25 to 34. COVID-19 only exacerbated these trends, which have developed over the last decade.
North Central Health Services (NCHS) CEO Stephanie Long is committed to reversing this trajectory. NCHS conducted focus groups in the West Central Indiana region in the summer of 2018 as part of its Community Health Needs Assessment, during which school administrators expressed their concerns about their students' well-being and the need to equip them with skills and knowledge for substance use prevention. Since then, NCHS has allocated over $6 million in grant funding for planning and implementation grants and has supported schools implementing evidence-based prevention programs.
In a bid to address the pressing issue of mental health among adolescents, NCHS has been actively supporting vital programs through the YES! Summit, the Resilient Youth (RYI), and the Preventing Youth Suicide Initiatives (PYSI).
The YES! Summit, an event organized by the Indiana Department of Education, Indiana Division of Mental Health and Addiction, the Richard M. Fairbanks Foundation, the Healthcare Foundation of La Porte, and North Central Health Services, was instrumental in fostering partnerships among coalitions, funders, nonprofits, and other entities. Its focus lies in identifying and directly addressing critical community health needs.
“Student well-being is an essential building block for academic success,” said Jay Chaudhary, Director of the Indiana Division of Mental Health and Addiction. “As Hoosier students continue to struggle in the wake of COVID-19, and mental health providers face capacity constraints, educators and our state organizations must work together to advance mental health systems within our schools. We are collectively committed to thinking upstream and providing opportunities and tools for educators statewide to prioritize student wellbeing and improve educational outcomes.”
RYI is one such program funded by NCHS, aimed at supporting mental health and substance abuse needs in the community. RYI has played a crucial role in assisting schools to develop youth resiliency through life-skills competency, drug resistance, and mental well-being. With an investment of $6.2 million over four years, RYI has reached 1400 implementers across 19 school corporations, including 71 schools, and benefited 26,425 students. The initiative has successfully introduced 11 programs, with Second Step and Botvin LifeSkills Training being the most common ones, targeting students from elementary to high school levels.
Concurrently, PYSI aims to integrate mental health within the education system to enhance suicide prevention efforts. In collaboration with the Education Development Center (EDC), NCHS has provided school and district teams with essential tools and protocols to address suicide risks comprehensively. This multi-tiered approach includes written protocols for helping at-risk students, community partnerships for support and services, identification of vulnerable youth, and promotion of protective factors for enhanced well-being. With a total investment of $1.4 million over two years, PYSI has reached 12 school corporations, impacting almost 35,000 students.
As part of PYSI, a 3-day Prepare 1 and 2 training workshop was conducted in June 2023, with 50 participants from the region actively taking part. The workshops provided crucial knowledge and resources for establishing comprehensive school safety plans and addressing mental health needs following crisis events. The success of these initiatives has not only garnered attention from the local community but also from the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP).
Moreover, NCHS has collaborated with IU Health to fund Youth Teen Cafés in the West Central Indiana region. Thirteen organizations were selected to implement #WoWTalk (Words of Wisdom) Cafés, also known as Teen Cafés, through Be Strong Families. These cafés aim to provide a safe space for middle and high school youth to express themselves and engage in meaningful discussions. Each organization will host six to twelve Teen Cafés during the two-year grant period (January 2023 – December 2024), with themes, food, and incentives included in the funding.
Thanks to the dedication and commitment of NCHS, its partners, and the participants of YES! Summit, the Resilient Youth and Preventing Youth Suicide Initiatives have significantly impacted the mental health landscape in the West Central Indiana region. By fostering resiliency and enhancing suicide prevention efforts, these initiatives continue to create healthier communities and brighter futures for the youth of Indiana.
The work is just beginning, Long said.
“Encouragement and further grants help ensure educators and leaders can be set up for success moving forward,” she said. “Community and school leaders need to know we are here to support them every step of the way. Mental health and suicide are a significant concern for our youth, but we have provided the tools for their toolkit to address it head-on.”
Through strategic collaborations, NCHS has awarded over $82 million in grants to more than 250 organizations since 1999, impacting the lives of countless individuals across Benton, Carroll, Clinton, Fountain, Montgomery, Tippecanoe, Warren, and White counties.
More information on the YES! Summit can be found here.