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Maine School District Expands Teletherapy for Students

Spurred by growing community concerns about student mental health, a program at AOS 90 places health workers in schools who can connect students to both in-person and remote therapy services.

school nurse and Jada the navigator with telehealth cart 19 Jan 2023 (1).jpg
The AOS 90 school district in Maine has been expanding student access to teletherapy services.
Photo courtesy of MCD
With student mental health being a major concern for K-12 schools during the pandemic, school districts with staffing limitations have increasingly turned to teletherapy as a viable alternative to traditional counseling and therapy for students in crises. Among those districts is the AOS 90 school district in Maine, where officials are expanding teletherapy support services to meet more students in need.

According to a news release, in the school telehealth program, which began as a pilot program last year, community health workers function as “service navigators” that connect students to both in-person and remote therapy and other behavioral mental health resources. It said the program came after a 2021 community survey from a Community Health Ad Hoc Committee established by the Baileyville Town Council in which local residents cited an urgent need to expand access to behavioral health services.

MCD Global Health Deputy Director for U.S. Program Development Kate Perkins said the initiative was launched with a $500,000 “challenge grant” from Point32Health Foundation, with MCD garnering matching funds from foundations such as the Maine Health Access Foundation, Bingham Program and Elmina B. Sewall Foundation. She said the program is funded through July 2025 by a $982,000 grant from the Pull Up Fund. Across all funders and partners, she said, the total amount of private-sector resources now exceeds $1.8 million.

Perkins said students and staff at the four schools that make up AOS 90 — East Range II (PreK-8), Princeton (PreK-8), Woodland Elementary (PreK-6) and Woodland Junior-Senior High School (7-12) — all now have access to mobile teletherapy units outfitted with Apple laptops, as well as in-person and behavioral health teletherapy support services provided by Aroostook Mental Health Services and St. Croix Regional Family Health Center. Noting that the February 2022 pilot program started with just 10 treatment slots, she said the fully implemented program in 2022-2023 has already served more than 65 students, with plans to serve 80 students by July and make support available year-round.

“Everybody agreed that mental health issues were the biggest problem that needed to get solved because there just wasn't enough support,” she said. “I think part of what was influencing them in giving us those [survey] answers is that in the prior school year, there had been a rash of suicides that included one of the students who had died by suicide and that had really shaken everybody.”

Perkins said that without a licensed therapist in town, families had to travel to find services until now.

“The school had brought in therapists and has on-site people, but the demand [for services] was more than those on-site therapists could respond to, and that was what they were dealing with when they asked us to start the teletherapy pilot,” she said.

According to AOS 90 Superintendent Patricia Metta, the district originally explored the idea of establishing a community health center in 2022 in response to a growing need for student mental health services.

“When we realized we could not get the health center, we discussed what more we could do to help students and parents with services. It was then that Kate suggested teletherapy, and there were a couple of grants making this available,” she said in an email to Government Technology. “At first, people were very timid and students did not know what to expect. Having ‘school navigators’ helped immensely, because students had the opportunity to talk to someone when they go in and then have someone with them if they need it after their session.”

Perkins said students today — particularly in middle- and high-school grades — are “digital natives,” making them generally more accustomed to and comfortable with teletherapy as a viable alternative to in-person services. She said she believes schools will increasingly turn to teletherapy solutions like these to address student mental health concerns at scale.

Perkins said community health workers and school staff have reported that the response to the program has so far been positive, with disciplinary and attendance issues improving “tremendously.” She added that MCD will release a report this summer to fully gauge the impact of the program and whether those changes can be directly related to recent efforts to expand teletherapy services.

“I think schools are realizing they can do it because they've never had the infrastructure before. Now, they know they can do it, and we have had more time and experience proving that it works,” she said. “I think it will grow a lot, in part because there's such a desperate need.”
Brandon Paykamian is a staff writer for Government Technology. He has a bachelor's degree in journalism from East Tennessee State University and years of experience as a multimedia reporter, mainly focusing on public education and higher ed.