In a state where only a fraction of mental health needs are met by existing services, Santa Fe Public Schools officials are celebrating a grant that is expected to help schools expand the ways they can help struggling students.

The five-year, $8.9 million grant was awarded to the state Public Education Department through the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration earlier this month.

Three districts — Santa Fe, Farmington and Socorro — were selected by the Public Education Department based on a willingness to participate and existing mental health infrastructure and demographics, including the number of students who use English as a second language and poverty rates among families districtwide.

Through the grant, the districts will take part in a program called Project AWARE for the next five years.

“I think that it will help us to do a couple of things. One is to increase mental health awareness of our school-aged youth. … To me, it’s also about enhancing what Santa Fe Public Schools already offers,” said Sue O’Brien, a student wellness coordinator for the district.

O’Brien said the district hopes to use some of the funds to link Native American students with more culturally specific mental and behavioral health services, in part by partnering with Serenity Wellness Center, a local community mental health agency.

During the pandemic, the school district offered services for students who needed individualized mental health support. Now that students are readjusting to in-person classrooms, O’Brien said, some partnering agencies to which schools referred students for therapy have suffered a loss in staffing.

“Students without a doubt have been in a place of isolation,” O’Brien said. “So getting back into those things is challenging for most.”

According to the University of New Mexico, only 12 percent of New Mexicans’ mental health needs are being met.

Researchers are still determining the impact the coronavirus pandemic is having on the mental health of students, but in January, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported spikes in the number of children going to the emergency room for mental health crises.



Between April and October 2020, at the peak of distance learning for many students nationwide, there was a 24 percent increase in the number of 5- through 11-year-olds going to the emergency room over 2019, and a 31 percent increase for teens under 17.

As part of the AWARE program, staff members at Santa Fe Public Schools and the other districts will take part in several mental health trainings.

“If we can get school personnel trained on … identifying mental health issues to get services to those students quicker and appropriate services, [that] is very important,” O’Brien said.

As the five-year grant sunsets, she said, it will be key to evaluate the programming attached to it. Local grants, she added, won’t cover the same amount of money the federal grant provides.

Farmington Municipal Schools Superintendent Eugene “Gene” Schmidt said he was happy the AWARE program will bring a behavioral health clinician to the district.

“We’ve slowly been building up our social emotional on-site support over the past two years,” he said. “But this grant gives us an opportunity to step to a much more important level, and that’s that we’re connecting with a local service provider that will embed in the school additional support for kids who tend to exhibit suicidal ideation.”

In a remote area like Farmington, he said access to mental health services is particularly sparse.

“One of the sad stories about Farmington is that we’re miles away from the child psychologists that we’d normally send a kid to right away,” Schmidt said. “Now, we have the immediate access to more local services providers, who will be embedded into the school.”

Roberto Taboada, a spokesman for the Farmington district, noted that as the pandemic rolls along, many area mental health providers are booked weeks and months out.

“It puts a greater strain on the mental health, not just of students but also the staff in our school,” he said.

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