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Pilot Program Soars as ‘Navigators’ Connect Lee Students, Families with Care

Children's Health
Author name: Lee Health


The pandemic has made our lives “virtual” in so many ways. Kids attend school classes on their laptops, employees “report” to work remotely, and we “see” the doctor from our homes when we’re ill.

But “hope” isn’t virtual, not the kind inspired by the partnership between Golisano Children’s Hospital of Southwest Florida and Lee County School District. In March, the collaboration launched the Mental Health Navigator Program, which helps high-risk children and vulnerable families get mental health services in their time of need, before more potentially serious issues can develop.

Too often, hurting families don’t know where to turn or how to access mental health resources and services, says Richard Keelan, child advocacy supervisor for Kids' Minds Matter and Golisano Children’s Hospital.

“Before being referred to the program, these families often found barriers and hurdles in navigating the health care system and other resources on their own,” he says. “There are so many different types of resources available, which can overwhelm and frustrate parents who don’t always know which service or program may meet their child’s needs.

"There are other obstacles to accessing care, like transportation issues and language barriers. The program helps families overcome those barriers and get the help they need.”

Two Lee County schools were selected as pilot sites for the program. Eventually, the goal is to expand this resource to all schools in the county.

Administered and supervised by Kids’ Minds Matter at Golisano Children’s Hospital, the Mental Health Navigator (MHN) program launched in March during the early days of the pandemic, a daunting task.

“Sometimes finding supportive services for a child can be difficult for anyone in the community,” says Shannon Ellis, a nationally certified school psychologist with the Lee School District. “But especially during a global pandemic when the world was going virtual. How does one navigate that new territory?”

Lindsey Dwyer, a Lee County School district counselor, says the program had to adapt its services to a virtual model.

“The school district was already planning to go virtual anyway, which helped ease our program’s transition,” Dwyer says. “But some families lacked access to technology, which posed a considerable challenge for the Lee Health mental health navigators. To get electronic systems up and running in the home, navigators sometimes had to visit the home wearing the appropriate personal protective equipment and following CDC safety guidelines such as social distancing.”

Hope is in the numbers

Since Kids’ Minds Matter launched its Mental Health Navigator Program in spring 2020, parents of eight participating families report their children’s attendance and grades have improved significantly.

Ellis cites the following accomplishments:

  • The children in the program have improved in grade performance by 15% in just one quarter.
  • For math, students in the program improved their average grade by 12%.
  • The percentage of students who had perfect school attendance rose from 15% to 55%.

In addition, the MHN program has connected eight children and two parents with mental health therapy services, helped families become self-sufficient in meeting their mental health care needs, secured funds for purchasing basic needs, such as food, toiletries, clothes, and help with auto repairs for work-related purposes, helped families apply for Lee Cares assistance, and the list of accomplishments goes on.

How the mental health navigator program works

Students are referred to Kids’ Minds Matter by their school’s mental health team featuring a counselor, social worker, psychologist, and nurse, says Dwyer.

“Generally, children who are referred to the program are struggling in areas such as behavior, attendance and grades, or some combination of these and have not responded to the typical school-based interventions for resolving these issues,” Dwyer explains. ”Any school staff member can register their concern for a student in the school mental health data base. School personnel then contact the family and have them complete a short screening tool.”

Dwyer says parents are directed to services that can help their child, such as counseling or other community resources. Usually, the child and family get the help they need.

“But with most cases involving students referred to the MHN program, the school and the family are unable to ‘close the gap’ between what the student needs and what school and family can do without outside assistance,” Dwyer adds.

That’s where the “wraparound approach” of the MNG program shines, says Ellis.

“The wraparound approach combines intensive care coordination and peer specialist relationships,” Ellis notes. “It’s a team-based care planning approach that  can include connecting parents and children to mental health services, providing transportation to appointments, helping complete applications for housing, financial assistance, or school enrollment, and helping meal-deprived families get access to local food resources, literally anything that helps the children and family access the services and resources to help them function in a healthier way.”

What do mental health navigators do?

Mental health navigators relate one-on-one with families on mental health challenges, Dwyer says. The services they provide include assisting families with helping parents secure basic needs, such as food, clothing, utilities, housing, and access to mental health care for their children.

“Navigators have had their own personal experiences with the mental health issues of a family member or child,” she says. “Having faced it themselves. many already have been through bureaucratic obstacles. They know first-hand the frustration that sometimes comes with getting the appropriate supports for their loved one.”

The goal is to help families learn how to self-advocate so eventually they can rely on their own resources without the program’s help, she adds. 

“The goal is to empower these families and their children, to give them resources and support that they can take control and improve the quality of their lives,” she says. “That’s why partnerships like the Mental Health Navigator Program is such an asset to our community and our schools.”

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    Child Advocacy

    Compassionate team members who raise awareness about social issues, provide safety education, and promote mental health awareness and positive parenting.

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