Peer-based Support to Prevent Substance Use & Bullying

With fentanyl use and overdoses on the rise in the last six to eight months, Comprehensive Mental Health Services (CMHS) is on the forefront of combating substance use among youth in Eastern Jackson County. Their in-school prevention program uses a peer-based model to empower students to lend their voices (and video) in helping their friends, other students, and school staff understand the issues around substance use, how to help those struggling, and more.

Through these programs that are  funded by the Children’s Services Fund, and by developing a state coalition of stakeholders to inform and guide prevention efforts, the CMHS is poised to make a difference for youth and their families today and tomorrow.

Peer-to-Peer In-school Prevention

School-aged children and youth face more challenges today than ever before. Recognizing a trend in young adults abandoning services just to return several years later with more challenges, CMHS knew they needed to shift efforts from reactionary to prevention education in schools in order to decrease the overall effects of substance use. “If we can help children now, empower them to make better decisions regarding substance use, and equip them with the tools and resources they need to develop proper coping skills, overcome trauma and foster good mental health practices, they won’t need as much support or as many services later on,” said President Julie Pratt.

Through partnerships with area school districts, CMHS places three prevention specialists in schools to implement WhyTry educational group curriculum to help teens develop resilience, advocate for themselves, and overcome trauma. Students learn about the effects of bullying, teen-dating violence, grief, loss, violence in the home/community, substance use, suicide awareness and prevention, and transitioning to adulthood.

PUSH Program: Prevention Utilized for Student Health

In addition to groups, CMHS offers a unique prevention program—Prevention Utilized for Student Health (PUSH). With a current focus on bullying and substance use, PUSH is a peer-based model where students are encouraged and help one another. Student leaders coordinate efforts to create messaging, posters and videos to promote throughout the school and on social media — thanks to the CSF’s 2021 technology funding.

Jacqueline Mace, Youth Substance Use Disorder Manager, has been instrumental in building the PUSH program, expanding it into Grain Valley, Oak Grove, Buckner, Independence and Blue Springs. But she has a vision to do more. “A large part of what the CSF is helping us develop is how to put the focus on kids to lead and direct how the program works. Our specialists of course provide teachers, administrators and students with education about knowing who to go to if they are struggling or if they see a friend struggling. But the real key to reaching more students is through other students.”

Jacqueline is excited about what is to come. “We served over 200 students in the 2022-2023 school year, and we’re aiming to double that next year.” 

Forming a State Coalition to Fight Substance Use

Although many organizations and entities are working towards substance use solutions in Eastern Jackson County, CMHS realized in order to make a significant impact, the community needed a coalition. Stakeholders from schools, police departments, hospitals, a drug task force, the Blue Springs Youth Alliance, and several CSF partner organizations gathered to champion the effort. In May, the Missouri Department of Mental Health approved the group as an official state coalition. 

The coalition is actively discussing innovative solutions between their work, school programs, and parents to bring more holistic solutions to the table. For CMHS, the real potential here is giving student leaders a bigger platform where their voices can be heard. Jacqueline sees how “the coalition can learn a lot from students themselves. They can help us understand the deeper issues, how students really think and feel about substance use and mental health, and how they’ll respond to the solutions we’re proposing.”

A Community of Mental Health Partners

Together, the Kansas City community, mental health professionals, and leaders are working to find solutions for mental health challenges. The CMHS works with local nonprofits and agencies such as University Health, Swope, CommCare and the Metro Counsel of Community Behavioral Health to host an annual mental health conference in May. 

The Value of Partnership with the CSF

For Carl Anderson, Director of Regional Organizational Affairs, the CSF team has been very cooperative in helping them think through their programs for more impact. When it comes to advice for new partners applying for funding, he says, “you don’t have to get your ducks in a row on your own — they’ll help you! Ask all the questions. Let them give their input and insight, no matter whether you’re one month or six months in, or whether something is working or not working.”

When CMHS merged with Burrell Behavioral Health in 2022, the CSF team met with them to hear their ideas and offer thoughts on ways they could approach them for more impact. Together, they identified what wasn’t working as well as it could. They didn’t get stuck in the details, but the CSF team guided them along the flow of what was actually happening. “The CSF excels at technical assistance from a personal standpoint. We have a strong relationship, and for every partner, that relationship is worth investing in. It’s what will guide you through the adjustments necessary to build quality programs that make a difference for Jackson County kids.”

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