School-based mental health program now at Deer Lakes |
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Madasyn Lee

Deer Lakes School District officials said it made sense for them to partner with Wesley Family Services to offer Alle­gheny County’s only public school-based partial hospital program for students with severe mental health and psychological issues.

The program had been based in Highlands School District for more than a decade, but stopped operating there after last school year when the district closed the Highlands Support Center in Fawn. It moved to Deer Lakes in July.

“We had a lot of students in the Highlands program, so we were paying the transportation there,” said Deer Lakes Assistant Superintendent Bobbi-Ann Barnes. “It just made sense for us to be able to house it here.”

There are 12 students in the program, now based on the second floor of Deer Lakes High School. It can accommodate as many as 25 students, officials said.

The program provides mental health treatment, weekly psychiatric monitoring and schooling for K-12 students with conditions such as anxiety, depression or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, ADHD.

“These are for the most severe cases,” Deer Lakes spokesman Jim Cromie said.

The program is open to students from districts in surrounding counties and communities, not just Deer Lakes. In addition to Deer Lakes’ six students, three are from Highlands, while Allegheny Valley, Kiski Area and New Kensington-Arnold each have one student in the program.

The students are referred from their home school district or mental health professionals. They stay for an average of six to nine months before going back to a regular classroom.

The program is offered year-round because “mental health doesn’t go away in the summer,” said program manager Amanda Cooper.

Students are taught by Deer Lakes teachers and aides. They’re broken up into two classrooms categorized by age.

There is also a sensory room containing anxiety-reducing items such as yoga balls, weighted blankets and a giant teddy bear, along with a quiet room where students can go when they are feeling overwhelmed.

“Sometimes you just need to come and sit and have space to yourself,” Cooper said.

Students get three hours of academic instruction and three hours of group therapy a day. They also receive weekly individual and family therapy.

The program has a separate entrance and exit at the high school, and runs from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. on school days.

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