Detroit Public Schools Partners with a U-M Mental Health Program

The TRAILS program is helping school staff tend to students’ needs
TRAILS detroit public schools
Photo: courtesy University of Michigan Medical School

It would be hard to visit a school for even a couple hours without witnessing a mental health issue involving one or more students, says Nikolai Vitti, superintendent of Detroit Public Schools Community District. Students struggling with emotional issues present challenges to teachers and other students.

“When I’ve been to schools, within 30 minutes to an hour you start to see issues surface where kids are in the office crying inconsolably because of something that happened in the home or there was conflict between a student and another child,” Vitti says. “When we did a survey with our teachers, it was clear from them that there’s deep mental health issues that are not being addressed in our schools.”

This is why DPS joined other districts across Michigan in participating in the Transforming Research into Action to Improve the Lives of Students (TRAILS) program, which trains school staffers and educators on cognitive behavioral therapy and mindfulness strategies that teach children coping skills. In Wayne County, the program aims to train staffers in every middle and high school within the next few years, says Elizabeth Koschmann, TRAILS program founder and director.

Koschmann, who joined the faculty of the psychiatry department at the University of Michigan in 2011, launched what would become the TRAILS program in 2013 to help Ann Arbor schools with student mental health issues. Though it started by primarily training staffers, the program has since extended to instructors and receives funding from The Children’s Foundation, the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan Foundation, and other nonprofits and government agencies. To date, more than 1,300 people across Michigan have participated in training sessions since it launched.

“In a community that’s really impacted by poverty and material decline of infrastructure, those staff are confronted by students every day who are struggling emotionally,” says Koschmann of Detroit.

Students in affluent areas face anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation that stems from academic pressure or social pressure, Koschmann says. Students in low-income communities, on the other hand, reckon with crumbling infrastructure and challenges in transportation, housing, food insecurity, and community violence.

There’s a disconnect between the assistance counselors and other school staffers are prepared to give and the mental health care that students need, Koschmann says. School staffers traditionally are better prepared to address questions about college preparation or academic scheduling and are often ill-equipped to handle children struggling with stress, exposure to traumatic events, depression, and anxiety.

“When we look at kids who do receive mental health care and, even beyond
that, who receive effective mental health care, they are more likely to access that care through the school than in any other setting,” Koschmann says. “We know
that the kids are able to connect with those staff.”

Eventually, Vitti wants to expand TRAILS across the district. He’s already fielding requests from other school administrators interested in rolling out this program in their schools, too. The district has hired more guidance counselors and social workers, but Vitti says he continues to hear from students who face mental health challenges themselves or have friends who are contemplating suicide.

“It’s an injustice that has to be solved, because we can’t even get to teaching and learning if we can’t get kids in a place of peace about who they are and what they’re going through,” Vitti says.

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