By Alisha Thompson
Did you know that Oklahoma is considered a mental health desert? Lance Whaley, Project Aware manager for Davis Public Schools hopes to see that change. He knows that Oklahoma can become a mental health care oasis.
He will share more about his job Thursday at noon at the Davis Chamber of Commerce. The public is invited to attend. The Chamber is located at 100 E. Main.
Davis Public Schools was one of three grants awarded in the state to take part in a five year effort to bring mental health awareness to school students and their families. Whaley is the project manager and Jessica Johnston is the on-site therapist for the program. Whaley said Johnston is already seeing students. “We are so thankful to have her,” Whaley said. “She’s hit the ground running. Right now we just have her on the sites and being a presence, getting to be known.”
The SAMHSA federal grant from the Oklahoma Department of Education for $1,798,523 has been split between Davis, Sulphur and Lawton. Davis has earned the “Aware South” nickname in the project. Whaley said Oklahoma’s the only state he knows of that received three grants. Why? Because Oklahoma has a lack of licensed therapists in the state and there is still a stigma regarding mental health and treatment.
“During these crazy times we are very blessed to be a part of this. I heard the other day that the behavioral and mental state of kids are two years behind in the classroom due to Covid,” Whaley said. “I think this is an amazing opportunity to get rid of some of the stigma of mental health and going to counselors. This is a time we can push forward and encourage people to seek treatment.”
Whaley’s job is to educate the community about the program and build a program within the school district. “We are working closely with our school counselors,” Whaley said. “Our school counselors are phenomenal. They are already stretched so thin with all the paperwork and other things they have to do. Having the onsite therapist will really help them.
There are three tiers to the program.
The first tier will be working with the teachers to implement mental health awareness and coping skills. The teachers will have training from the Swift Center, an extension of Kansas University and Oklahoma State University.
Tier two is when a student is having trouble and a teacher doesn’t know how to reach the student. The student visits with the counselor and a plan is formed from there.
Tier three is for a student who has faced trauma that is having a hard time processing that and needs long term help. With the help of the therapist, these students will be referred to an outside therapist for long term counseling.
Whaley said that he’s already impressed with the counselors at the school. He said a lot of the things that need to be done are already in placed, they just need to be streamlined.
Whaley said that the goal is to make it easier on the teacher and the student and implementing these items in the day-to-day.
This year Whaley said that next year parents will see Project Aware in action. In the mean time, he said they are working on social media posts with the high school media department. “We will bring in tips for each school building and I think we’re going to call them Mental Health Monday’s on social media,” Whaley said. “We are going to work on having teams on each site. Teachers and students. We are going to do parent nights for the community and bring in different speakers.”