“Champions Corner” is a new blog series from the Texas System of Care that highlights the incredible work our sites, various government agencies, and other communities are doing towards implementing system of care values.
This month, we’re talking to Dr. Natalie Fikac, AWARE Texas State Coordinator at the Texas Education Agency, to discuss her work on Project AWARE — a five-year grant administered through the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) that works to strengthen school-based supports for children’s mental health — and how it promotes and supports system of care values across the state.
Let’s start with the basics. What is Project AWARE?
Dr. Natalie Fikac: The purpose of the grant is to build out comprehensive school mental health programming. We are a little over a year and a half into the project now.
Currently, we are working in Education Service Centers (ESCs) Two, Three, Four and Five, and these specific centers were chosen because they were heavily impacted by Hurricane Harvey. The grant pays for one person to be housed at each ESC to manage AWARE projects in school districts — a CPM (Community Program Manager). Each of the school districts has one or two Mental Health and Behavioral Health Specialists — these are clinicians, from social workers to LPCs. They’re housed on the campuses and are providing direct services for students. We also collaborate with the Local Mental Health Authorities (LMHAs).
Another part of this grant is partnerships. The Texas Education Agency has a full-time staff member — that’s me. Texas Health and Human Services has a part-time person, her name is Laura Gold. And it’s also a partnership with UT Austin in the Texas Institute for Excellence in Mental Health, which is conducting program evaluation, among other activities.
What are the goals of the project?
N.F.: We wrote our own goals and then sent them to SAMHSA for approval. There are four goals.
One is to increase and improve access to culturally competent and developmentally appropriate school and community-based mental health services.
The second one is to increase awareness and identification of mental health issues among all adults working with young people and to promote positive mental health for students, school staff, and the community.
The third goal is to help students develop skills that will promote resilience, self-regulation, improve social behaviors, avert mental health disorders, behavioral health disorders, and youth violence.
The fourth goal — and this goal will come into focus during our final grant years — is to develop an infrastructure that will sustain services in the ESC or Local Education Agency by creating a comprehensive plan to build state-wide and regional capacity for promoting mental health awareness and evidence-based practices for school-based and school-connected mental health services.
I would describe Project AWARE as an incubator for school mental health. We are working in five districts that are very different. We have very small, rural districts where you have only 300 students in the whole district, and then large, urban districts where we have over 20,000 students. The mental health needs seem to be the same, which is not surprising, but the resources that the school-districts have are very different.
I think what’s interesting about this project is that we are working with a wide variety of districts and diverse communities and building this out over five years in the hopes that what we are able to do in these five districts can be replicated statewide.
So what is the work that is being done through the grant to achieve those goals of comprehensive mental health programming?
N.F.: We’re training Mental Health and Behavioral Health Specialists and CPMs on evidence-based practices, whether it’s direct services best practices or campus best practices, such as PBIS-ISF, which is Positive Behavior Intervention Support with an Interconnected Systems Framework for school mental health.
We are in the very early stages of that at this point. I would say we have largely focused on hiring, establishing relationships, setting up referral pathways in the schools, mental health promotion training, PBIS ISF training, other best-practice trainings and community-wide events. As we start building the partnership with the LMHAs, then AWARE will be a more robust, comprehensive system to support the community and schools.
Is it too early to see how things are going in the districts where Project AWARE is working?
N.F.: I think it’s too early. There have been some successes. I’d say one of the highlights is the amount of training that’s been provided. All of our school have been trained in Youth Mental Health First Aid, trauma, and mindfulness.
And then other trainings have occurred that have been more practitioner-based, so it’s what the Mental Health and Behavioral Health Specialists have received to use when they’re providing services to the students. That would be the highlight — we’re training and we’re talking about mental health in school districts that have never done that before.
We’re training and we’re talking about mental health in school districts that have never done that before.Dr. Natalie Fikac, AWARE Texas State Coordinator
Do you think the Project AWARE, incubator-style method is going to work when it comes to eventually implementing structural change state-wide?
N.F.: I think we’re discovering and working out some kinks that a lot of districts haven’t experienced as far as developing memorandums of understanding with outside agencies or even with the practitioners we have on the campuses. We are also making progress with consent processes and screening.
So we are working through systems and procedures in hopes that we’ll come up with a standard practice or a standard MOU or a standard consent form or a standard release of records — a process.
If we run into roadblocks, we can try something new. And when you can do that in a safe, contained environment, I think that’s the best way to implement programing.
Do you have any final thoughts on Project AWARE you want to share?
N.F.: I would say 2020/2021 is going to be an awesome school year. We’re going to have all our processes laid out and expectations and timelines, and we will already have learned some of what works and what doesn’t.
And, given the COVID-19 situation, I would like to provide an update on some of the work going on in the AWARE Texas LEAs. The MHBHSs (Mental Health/Behavioral Health Specialists) are virtually checking in regularly with their students. Social media platforms have proven to be great ways to provide updates, support, and resources to the school communities. Need assessments were conducted with all staff members in the LEAs, as well as administrators. From this data collected, MHBHSs are providing mindfulness exercises, selfcare strategies, DIY fidget toy instructions, etc. to the school communities virtually. The MHBHSs are also hosting virtual coffee breaks to collaborate and support educators with any mental or behavioral health concerns of their students during this distance learning.
Did you miss the last installment in our Champions’ Corner series? Catch up on what San Marcos is doing by clicking here.