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When Northeastern School District Elementary social worker Kathy Minnich reached out to York County school districts to discuss mental health in September 2016, she didn’t expect to get the response she got.

Fourteen out of 16 school districts responded and sent youth and adult mentors to a meeting, which ended up forming the York County Youth Mental Health Alliance.

“We were blown away,” Minnich said. “It has just taken off.”

Just a year later, Minnich and other York County Youth Mental Health Alliance leaders accepted the national Youth and Family Partnership Award at the 22nd Annual Conference on Advancing School Mental Health in Washington, D.C., on Friday, Oct. 20.

The award, given by the University of Maryland School of Medicine, honored the group for “excellence in partnering with youth and families in delivering quality school mental health programming.”

The York County Youth Mental Health Alliance now has students and staff involved from every school district in York County, for a total membership of about 150, according to Minnich.

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She said the program continues to be a successful link to mental health advocacy for students in York County. The organization conducted four meetings last year and continues to hold regular meetings this year.

In May, the organization hosted a Glow 5K at Northeastern that brought out more than  800 people to raise awareness about mental health.

Minnich said the Alliance owes its success to area youth who have used their stories to bring reform.

“I really think youth are the change agents of the county,” she said. When adults speak about the issue, there might be an empathy disconnect, but when young people talk about their mental health, “everybody stops,” Minnich added.

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Barriers: While mental health issues are mentioned more than ever, Minnich said there are still barriers for students searching for treatment.

“If we would call numerous agencies in our community today and ask for a 12-year-old to make an appointment for a psychiatric evaluation, I would guess that the wait would be three to four months,” she said.

Kara Vojcsik, a social worker in South Eastern School District, said a constant barrier is the stigma attached to speaking about mental health issues.

She mentioned a past eighth-grade suicide prevention group she held in which she noticed dismissive attitudes.

“A lot of students think that kids who are seeking help are attention-seeking,” she said. “It’s easier to get help for cancer than it is for anxiety.”

Social change: The recent award comes at a time when mental health has become an increasing priority among York County school district administrators and staff.

In October, the York City school board approved a measure to expand the York City School District’s social service department by hiring three additional social workers and one additional guidance counselor for its K-8 schools.

Before the vote approving the measure, board member James Sawor asked why the district needed more social workers, and Davis K-8 fifth- and sixth-grade teacher Kollene Stauffer sprang from her seat to answer the question.

“I’m trained to be a teacher; I’m not a psychologist,” she said.

Stauffer recalled a recent incident in which a student came into her classroom and said he wanted to kill himself.

“OK, I’m not equipped to deal with that,” Stauffer said, “but I’m not about to let that go.”

Having a social worker available within the school building every day helps keep the student body physically, cognitively and mentally healthy, she added.

On the other end of the spectrum, the Dover Area School District hired its first social worker in August.

Minnich said the increase in social worker hires is something she has wanted since she was hired 19 years ago by Northeastern as the first school social worker in York County.

“It’s time to see social workers as an expectation rather than a luxury,” she said.

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