In the fall of 2019, Cricket Meehan, a Miami University psychology professor, received an unexpected text from a colleague.
Meehan and her colleagues were selected to receive a portion of Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine’s emergency education relief funds set aside to address student mental health crises in 2020. Because of the strong reputation she had built from her previous three projects, Meehan was chosen to receive funds to head a program that would address the mental health crises occurring in schools.
“I’m just holding my phone and it’s a text and I think I read it about 20 times,” Meehan said.
Little did Meehan know, this text would be the catalyst for a million-dollar mental health program based out of Miami, which would grow to help Ohio students and faculty members state-wide.
Mental health background
Meehan’s career in mental health outreach began in 2006 when she began working with the Center for School-Based Mental Health Program (CSBMHP), which was established in 1998. With CSBMHP, Meehan worked on Interact for Health, formerly known as Health Foundation of Greater Cincinnati.
This project continued through 2014, where it expanded into three state-wide projects: the Ohio’s Project Advancing Wellness and Resiliency in Education (AWARE), the Ohio School Climate Transformation Project and the Positive Behavioral Interventions and Support Initiative, all partners with the Ohio Department of Education and the Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services (OhioMHAS).
“We’ve been developing and building our reputation to do really good school mental health work in Ohio for a long time,” Meehan said.
It was the combination of these three projects that led to the formation of the Ohio School Wellness Initiative in 2019. The Ohio School Wellness Initiative is a Miami-based project that provides mental health and substance abuse support to surrounding K-12 students and staff in the Ohio area.
The Ohio School Wellness Initiative
The Ohio School Wellness Initiative provides schools with a model for a Student Assistance Program (SAP), “a comprehensive, school-based framework designed to provide these services by preventing and supporting K-12 students experiencing non-academic barriers to learning.” The SAP outlines an educational curriculum for all students, as well as a model for supporting at-risk students. The other half of the initiative revolves around staff wellness.
Schools across the state are able to access the SAP and apply it to their own district. Each region of Ohio has a representative lead from the Ohio Mental Health Network for School Success, who helps facilitate and support the program within schools.
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“Really that’s all about having a team in place and then having a referral process so people can identify students with mental health or behavioral health concerns, refer them to the team,” Meehan said. “... The work that we do is meant to be adoptable and adaptable.”
The project also provides funds to hire staff members who focus on the quality of mental health support and fosters connections between those who are seeking support and those who can provide it.
“It’s a person who really can focus on ensuring that … the machine is working well,” Meehan said.
Center of Excellence and grant funding
In January 2021, about a year after the project took off, Miami received more than $6 million from Ohio’s Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund (GEER) in order to further develop the Ohio Wellness Initiative, led by Meehan.
Since the Ohio GEER funding, the Ohio School Wellness Initiative has grown to be named a Center of Excellence — the only school-based center in Ohio — and has received an additional $5 million grant from OhioMHAS. As a designated Center of Excellence, Miami is responsible for continuing the Ohio Wellness Initiative, in addition to guiding schools who adopted the program.
“[The Ohio State Department] identified that the way to keep all this work functioning would be to stand up a Center of Excellence in Ohio,” Meehan said. “It’s almost like all of the work that was done in different projects, it comes together now.”
Meehan describes it as a “hub,” combining all of her team’s work and resources into one place which focuses on prevention and early intervention of mental illness in schools.
In addition to its recent recognition as a Center of Excellence, the Ohio School Wellness Initiative also received two additional grants: one from a partnership with the federal department of Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) and one from OhioMHAS.
SAMHSA provided a federal grant called Project Aware, a partner with the Ohio School Wellness Initiative, which qualifies more than 10 counties in Ohio to receive support over the next five years.
“If the school district is in that county, they would qualify for support from that particular project … bringing even more behavioral health and wellness coordinators into our school settings,” Meehan said.
The second grant, OhioMHAS, gave the team $5 million to use on the Ohio School Wellness Initiative.
With the additional grant funding, Meehan and her team have been able to emphasize working with young adults who are going through life transitions such as starting college or a professional job. Connecting with this age demographic ensures the ability to access help, though it may be more difficult to find beyond high school and college.
“We’ve been doing work with [OhioMHAS] on our youth and young adult early intervention work,” Meehan said. “So it goes beyond our normal high school age at 18 … so all the way from [ages] 10 to 24, ensuring that they have access to whatever it is they may need.”
Collaboration at the state level with Ohio Mental Health Network for School Success involves work with Director Kathleen Oberlin, who has worked on Meehan’s team since the beginning. Oberlin’s work is focused on outreach to Ohio schools in order to provide training regarding school mental health.
“The biggest struggle as well has been the schools being overwhelmed to begin with … and what they’re seeing with students with anxiety and depression as they’re coming back into school,” Oberlin said.
Together, Meehan and Oberlin are looking to the future of the Ohio School Wellness Initiative. They are currently working to launch the Online Marketplace of Prevention and Early Intervention Resources, a database that will provide resources for students, families, teachers and healthcare providers.
“It’s almost a one-stop-shop,” Meehan said. The database includes “resource informed strategies” which are then combined “into one portal … [users] can search for whatever it is they’re looking for.”
In addition to the resource-based portal, Meehan and Oberlin have developed a Continuum of Services, which allows users to select the specific Ohio county they reside in, and then find a list of mental health providers in their area.
“We have the crisis lines down there as well,” Meehan said. “If people are in a suicidal crisis or any other kind of crisis, they can call the numbers.”
Meehan and her team have been able to expand their outreach over the past few years, but they do not plan to stop there. Going forward, Meehan hopes to hear directly from students regarding their perspective on mental health.
“We often don’t have the voices of the people who are most important,” Meehan said.
“If anyone wants to connect with our team and share or bring ideas to us … we certainly would love to invite [them].”
The Ohio School Wellness Initiative plans to remain functioning out of Miami and hopes to expand its influence online to become even more accessible outside of the school building.
“Bringing everyone together … start helping others understand school mental health,” Meehan said. “[Everyone] speaking the same language and supporting students in the best way that we possibly can, while also ensuring that we’re staying well ourselves … I think that’s the ultimate goal.”