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May is Mental Health Awareness Month

Mental health care has long-faced a stigma that made talking about needs or services difficult. Lately, though, mental health has become a much talked about topic. Nearly half of all lifetime cases of mental illnesses are estimated to start by age 14. Here in South Dakota, 9% of adolescents ages 12-17 had a major depressive episode in the year prior to them being surveyed. But, more than half of them never received treatment. While we are becoming more aware of the data, there is still work to be done.

Part of breaking down the stigma around mental health is educating others and creating awareness. That is why Sioux Empire United Way has agreed to additional funding to help bring on another counselor for this current school year. PATH, Providing Access to Healing, provides professional counseling services directly to students in their schools.

Sioux Empire United Way started looking at mental health needs in 2014. Researching solutions, United Way found a model program within our United Way network that would work within our local region. We were able to quickly begin piloting PATH within the Harrisburg School District back in 2015. The main goal was to remove barriers for youth to receive mental health care before they become even larger needs.

PATH counselors focus on treatment and coping skills for students (and their families) struggling with common issues such as depression, anxiety, ADHD, and relationship stresses among behavioral issues.

After a successful 2015 pilot of the program, Sioux Empire United Way’s 2018 Campaign aimed to expand the pilot to 5 school districts and serve over 200 students. Following the successful campaign, Sioux Empire United Way’s Board of Directors continued to see tremendous results from PATH and a desire from area schools to serve additional students through the program.

“As community members and volunteers, it is inspiring to see our area schools embrace PATH as a valuable resource for students’ mental health needs,” said Dan Heinemann, Sioux Empire United Way Board Chair. “Our Board of Directors recognize the value of this program and have acted quickly to fund additional counseling services to be able to serve the full set of requests from area schools.”

Schools have found that much like physical wellness, mental health is best maintained with early diagnosis and treatment. Accessing care can have obstacles: financial burdens, transportation to/from an appointment, and missing school (and work for the parent) to attend an appointment. PATH both addresses providing services early and removes the barriers to accessing services.

From an initial pilot of 50 students in 2015, to serving 200 students in 2018, recent additional PATH expansions now provide the program in more than 40 schools in Brandon Valley, Canton, Dell Rapids, Harrisburg, Sioux Falls, and Tea Area School Districts and Sioux Falls Catholic Schools.

A successful 2020 Sioux Empire United Way campaign will ensure PATH provides over 4,000 mental health counseling sessions to more than 350 area students in the next year.

“We are so excited about the opportunity to expand access to mental health care in our local schools through this innovative program. PATH is a great example of people in our community working together to solve local programs and of what makes our local United Way so special,” said Rebecca Kiesow-Knudsen, Vice President of Community Services at Lutheran Social Services of South Dakota.

PATH counselors provide confidential, individual counseling sessions at the school for kindergarten through 12th grade students. Counseling sessions are held in a private room, designated by the school. Counselors use accepted therapy practices that are appropriate for the student’s age and challenges. A counseling session could include talking, art, games, movement, toys, or music as therapy tools.

Thank you for your continued support in United Way and helping programs like PATH continue to succeed and make a difference in our Sioux Empire.