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Philadelphia Schools Sign Up for Online Mental Health Care

Pennsylvania's largest school district has joined a state program offering student mental health services through Kooth, but some parents are wary of more data collection and digital mediation through an online platform.

Teletherapy, psychologist online
(TNS) — Jayme Banks worried last summer — at the end of a school year that was tough for nearly everyone, with students coming off a year of pandemic-forced virtual classes, in a city traumatized by gun violence — that kids' mental health was fragile.

"I was just thinking: 'How do I know the kids are OK? How do I know that they have resources?'" said Banks, the Philadelphia School District's deputy chief of prevention, intervention, and trauma.

So when the opportunity to use a state grant to offer district high schoolers a free, digital mental health platform providing 24-hour access to therapeutic content, counseling, moderated forums, and other resources, Banks said she and other district officials were eager to sign on.

"We really look at this as strengthening our continuum of support for students, and allowing them to really know their options," Banks said. "We want to give them as many opportunities as possible."

Kooth, which operates via smartphone or other device, is not meant to replace in-person supports in school or at home, officials said. Students still have access to counselors, city behavioral health workers, and other mental health professionals — though educators here say there are not enough of those workers to meet student need: Currently, 18,000 students at 139 district schools receive individual support and group services by counselors in schools. In addition, the district offers students free access to the Philly HopeLine, a telephone hotline staffed by local mental health professionals.

Still, some parents are worried about the potential implications of an online wellness platform.

Vince Feldman's two children, who attend Central High and Masterman, won't be among the ranks of Philadelphia students who use Kooth, which he called "a black box to parents." He objects to the service on multiple levels.

"It's targeting a generation that's really in trouble with mental health. The phones, they already take credit for breaking social skills, lowering self-esteem, and certainly increasing anxiety. I don't think more digital mediation is the solution when we already know the phones are the problem," said Feldman, who thinks schools need more counselors to offer one-on-one support.

Also, said Feldman, "you need to be cautious with anything that ... collects your information, particularly your child's information. I think there's a lot of red flags — I see a parade of them."

Kooth launched in Philadelphia in February, but the company has a 22-year history in the United Kingdom, where it partners with the National Health Service to provide digital mental health and wellness services. Kooth inked a $3 million deal with Pennsylvania to provide services to up to 30 districts across the commonwealth, but Philadelphia is its largest U.S. school system to date.

The state is picking up Philadelphia's $1.8 million tab for Kooth's services through the 2024-25 school year; eventually, it hopes to offer the service to all sixth through eighth graders, as well.

Kooth, district officials said in announcing the platform to parents this year, "is a safe and confidential community where students can access professional counseling, peer-to-peer support and vital self-help tools like goal-setting resources, advice and opinion pieces, and written personal experiences from peers and experts."

Students utilizing Kooth might listen to a podcast on mindfulness or link to a TikTok video on self-care. For students who opt for counseling, all sessions occur via text, either in drop-ins or scheduled sessions; no video options are available. All Kooth clinicians are Pennsylvania-certified, master's-level professionals, officials said.

Though Kooth knows users' identities, they receive an alias, and schools and parents do not have access to what they post or share with counselors if they opt for counseling.

Mental health professionals monitor and moderate all content on any Kooth platform, Banks said, and alert schools if anything concerning is posted or shared with them.

"We do not routinely share information relating to chat sessions, as we know that this can prevent young people from talking to us, which can therefore increase risk, rather than reduce it; however, we will always ensure that the relevant services/adults are alerted when significant safeguarding or risk concerns are identified," Kooth officials said in a frequently asked questions section on its website.

A Philadelphia student advisory board helped weigh in on Kooth, and ultimately gave its blessing, Banks said; going forward, the group will continue to provide feedback, as well as make peers aware of the resource.

"There are times when a child is going through things and maybe it's something they're not ready to talk to their [school] counselor about," said Banks.

The aim, said Kevin Winters, general manager of Kooth U.S., is to "flip the script in terms of the model of mental health care; we want to move to the model of early identification and prevention. This is based on choice, not prescription. We go directly into the schools and provide as much broad-scale access as we can."

While face-to-face therapy is effective for many young people, Kooth offers easy access to mental health services without barriers, Winters said.

Across all Pennsylvania districts where Kooth has been rolled out, Winters said, about 25 percent of eligible students are taking advantage of the platform.

Central student Jeron Williams II knows that Kooth is an option, but would prefer working with a single therapist face-to-face or via video chat.

"I don't think it's something most of my classmates would seek out," said Williams. "And I would worry, what's being done with all our data?"

Kooth officials said students' data are kept confidential.

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