The future of the Lawrence school district’s in-school mental and behavioral health program remains up in the air for the 2022-23 academic year.
Funding for the Working to Realize Alternative Possibilities program, or WRAP, was withdrawn by the city of Lawrence for next school year. That’s left school officials and mental health support advocates needing to fill a gap between $350,000 and $400,000, according to Jeff Burkhead, communications manager for Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center.
The Lawrence school district does not provide funding for the partnership, which launched in 1997 between Bert Nash and the district. Douglas County supports the program financially, and in 2018 voters approved a quarter-cent sales tax to expand behavioral health support services, including WRAP. The program is also offered at the Juvenile Detention Center, Bishop Seabury Academy, and the school districts of Baldwin, Eudora and Perry-Lecompton.
Bert Nash CEO Patrick Schmitz said in an email the center was “looking into every possible option, including several grants, both ongoing and time limited.”
WRAP provides a licensed, master’s-level clinician employed by Bert Nash within the district’s two high schools, four middle schools and six elementaries: Cordley, New York, Pinckney, Prairie Park, Sunflower and Woodlawn.
Schmitz said whether WRAP would continue providing services next year at current levels in the district remained uncertain.
“There is a risk of a reduction in WRAP staffing levels, but we don’t know yet what the next school year will look like, which is why we are researching every possible option to continue WRAP at the current level.”
A unique aspect of WRAP, advocates note, is it reduces the stigma of seeking mental and behavioral health support by meeting youth where they’re at and eliminating the need to attend therapy sessions outside school. That proximity helps facilitate improved communication between teams providing educational and mental health services.
Lawrence school board member Kelly Jones has voiced frustration publicly since 2021 about the city’s intent to withdraw funding. A licensed master social worker who recently began her second four-year term on the school board, Jones described in an email the partnership and its services as life-saving, invaluable and undervalued.
One in five children meet the criteria for mental health intervention, Jones said. She said WRAP services weren’t impeded by health insurance coverage, which made them accessible in a time of growing need.
Certainly teachers and staff can support students with mental health needs. But as licensed mental health providers, Jones said, WRAP workers can treat an individual’s symptoms at an advanced level “that far exceeds the support district employees provide.”
“Without access to good mental health care, we can’t expect a student suffering from mental health symptoms to learn math. So while teachers and administrators can support student social-emotional wellbeing, they do not have the expertise to develop comprehensive treatment plans for students in need.”
Jones asked the community to speak out in support of WRAP funding for the district.
“In the way the community rallied to save schools and librarians — please demand the preservation and ultimate expansion of WRAP funding, which the City cut and County maintained in 2022 budgets. We need WRAP workers more than ever.”
A growing need for mental health supports
Schmitz said there were signs children’s mental health was “becoming more fragile” even prior to the pandemic, locally and across the country.
“With the pandemic, we are seeing an increasing number of kids who are needing services and we are seeing an increasing number who are attempting suicide.”
Although pediatric emergency department visits for all conditions decreased during the pandemic in Douglas County, suicide-related visits did not decrease proportionally, according to an initial data analysis by Aihua Zhu, senior analyst for Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health. Additionally, the percentage of suicidal ideation increased for those younger than 18 in 2020.
A full data brief on suicidal ideation in Douglas County will release in May, said Daniel Smith, communications officer for LDCPH.
For children ages 10-14 nationwide, suicide is the second leading cause of death, according to data compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Among young people ages 10-24, American Indian/Alaskan Natives and LGBTQ+ youth are included in groups most at risk for suicide.
A 2021 national survey on youth mental health by The Trevor Project reported “42% of LGBTQ youth seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year, including more than half of transgender and nonbinary youth.”
Schmitz called WRAP a “groundbreaking program” that has made an impact on thousands of students’ lives.
“We are grateful for the support of the WRAP program over these past 25 years, and we hope that support will continue for the next 25 years and beyond. The mental wellbeing of students and their families depends on it.”
Those who would like to help support WRAP financially can visit this link.