The Sunnyside School District has been awarded the Project AWARE Grant, which will tackle mental health issues among children and teens.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), the Project AWARE Grant is used to increase awareness of mental health issues among school-aged youth, and also to provide training for school personnel and other adults who interact with school-aged youth to detect and respond to mental health issues. The grant also entails community help and prevention of youth violence.

Heidi Hellner-Gomez, Assistant Superintendent of Sunnyside School District stated, “We are going to be providing training to all of our school district employees. Everybody in the district will receive some training in mental health awareness and education.”

Along with training staff, the school district is also partnering with Comprehensive Mental Health in Sunnyside, and United Family Center of Grandview to help with staffing of mental health professionals to work full time at local schools. “What were hoping is that by the end of this school year that we’ll have five (mental health professionals). One at the high school, one at each middle school, and two more divided among the elementaries,” Hellner-Gomez said.

The grant was awarded to several communities based in Washington. Yakima, Sunnyside, and Wahluke were chosen due to their socioeconomic and rural status. The Office of Superintendent and Public Instruction (OSPI) of Washington felt that these smaller districts could benefit well with help from the grant. “(OSPI) were looking for districts who might not have access to mental health readily,” Hellner-Gomez commented.

The mental health of students attending Sunnyside has become a significant problem for the school district. According to a poll that took place in 2018, 60 percent of seniors suffered excessive worrying, 44 percent reported depression, and 10 percent of seniors admitted to attempting suicide. “Its been a serious issue for a long time, and our students have needed some help,” Hellner-Gomez said.

The grant will not only will help in schools, but also outside of the classrooms. Parent information nights and other activities will also be included into the AWARE program.

“This is an exciting opportunity and I hope that it’s something that people will take advantage of,” Hellner-Gomez said.

Trevor Bradford can be contacted at 509-837-4500 ext. 110 or email tbradford@sunnysidesun.com

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