Arizona addresses student and educator mental health needs with school-based programs


Soraya Marashi


In the Arizona Telemedicine Program’s webinar on Friday about school-based mental health education for rural youth last week, Jean Ajamie of the School Safety & Social Wellness team at the Arizona Department of Education (ADE) presented a comprehensive overview of Arizona’s recent statewide initiatives for student mental health.


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Ajamie noted that nearly all data points for youth behavioral health have been trending downward since 2009 for both Arizona and the nation as a whole. She cited data from the 2019 Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS), which showed Arizona’s rates to be higher than national rates in two categories. 40.6% of youth in Arizona said they felt sad or hopeless almost every day for two or more weeks in a row, compared to 36.7% of youth in the entire U.S. Arizona also reported 4.2% of youth attempted suicide, resulting in an injury that had to be treated by a doctor or nurse, compared to 2.5% of youth in the entire U.S.

Ajamie also highlighted findings from surveys conducted for frontline workforces, such as district emergency preparedness coordinators and school nurses.

“We surveyed [district emergency preparedness coordinators] and our school nurses for the purpose of not only understanding the situation, but to develop our professional development plans for this year.”

The district emergency preparedness coordinators ranked mental health in their top three areas of concern for the 2021-2022 school year. School nurses said mental and emotional disorders are the third most frequently seen chronic health condition and that mental health was the number one remaining pandemic-related need. 71% said they would like training on mental health screening,

Ajamie said the Arizona Pediatric Healthcare Coalition also responded with their needs.

“[Their response] was a plea to us and to schools to do what we can to serve students at school because of the pressures put on the health care system.”

She commented on the passage of Senate Bill 1376, which instructed the State Board of Education to require mental health instruction within health education instruction in school courses. She noted that the program would be sending out guidance to schools in the coming weeks to support them in the implementation of this new requirement. 

She said the bill does not go far enough, as there has ultimately been a downward trend in the requirement of health education for graduation.

“This is a really good start, I don’t want to minimize the potential here, but it’s really important to know that we have a very weak requirement around health education to begin with. This might not be quite as strong as it could be if we had a stronger health education requirement.”

Ajamie also highlighted the Educator Peer Support Program developed during the pandemic by School Safety & Social Wellness in partnership with the state health department and the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System (AHCCCS). They utilized a behavioral health agency specializing in employee assistance programs to train 20 teacher and administrator peer coaches, backed by clinicians, to provide assistance to educators in distress. 

“It’s a way of reaching people who might not have access to a clinician or may be uncomfortable with the idea of therapy.” 

She also commented on advancements in the hiring of school personnel such as counselors and social workers with ADE pandemic relief funds by broadening acceptable criteria for hiring credentials in order to have a better chance of filling positions in hard-to-reach areas. They will also soon be engaging in a school nurse hiring and training program, with a goal of hiring 60 resident nurses for rural, underserved areas.

She emphasized the criticality of these workforce initiatives.

“I do think that this is probably some of the most important work that we’re doing, is getting very qualified and trained hands to help with the situation on campuses.”

Ajamie called attention to a school and behavioral health partnership resource guide they had developed, emphasizing the importance of a good relationship between schools and behavioral health agencies in the area.

“That’s really important because a school needs to be able to recognize when they are beyond their expertise, and when they need to refer. There’s a lot to that. There needs to be a policy and a referral process. They need to get on the same page with terminology. One of the biggest items you see right away is that the term behavior means something different to educators than it does in our behavioral health system.”

Ajamie also mentioned a new grant opportunity being offered by the agency called the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Set-Aside Funds Grant, which was announced earlier this week. The funds are meant to address mental, behavioral, and physical health supports for students.

“It’s exciting for me to see the elevation of mental health as a priority. I’m sorry to see why it has risen to this point of actually having the recognition it needs. But here we are, with some good resources.”