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Hortonville confronts mental health with open conversation

Hortonville schools saw a dark period when the suicide of children devastated the community. A commitment to addressing mental health has led to statewide attention, not for the problem, but for the solution.

A recently released video — produced by the state Department of Public Instruction — tells about collaboration among the Hortonville Area School District and mental health providers and advocates Catalpa Health, Samaritan Counseling Center and NAMI Fox Valley to reduce the stigma and encourage open conversation about mental health and suicidal thoughts across an entire school district.

A three-year grant of $201,000 from the Basic Needs Giving Partnership within the Community Foundation paid for training at all levels of school staff and peer-to-peer training for students. The Basic Needs Giving Partnership is funded by the U.S. Venture Fund for Basic Needs within the Community Foundation, with additional money from the J. J. Keller Foundation and other community partners.

The Hortonville district screened all students for mental health issues, except those whose parents requested their children opt out, and referred those with concerns to the E3 (Engage, Educate Empower) program, which brought Catalpa therapists into the schools. The district’s goal is to create a culture of mental wellness.

The effort, according to Hortonville High School junior Sammy Holtz, interviewed in the video, has “made it common ground” for students — and teachers — to acknowledge their anxieties and deal openly with mental health issues, posting them on a “Wall of Strength” in a hallway at the high school.

Surveys had found 12.8% of students reported having seriously considered suicide in previous 12 months and 23% reported feeling sad or hopeless almost every day. Hortonville Board of Education President Paul Thome said his school district is typical of others all over the state.

“If we’re like everybody else, then this is one serious problem that needs to be addressed somehow,” Thome said.

Superintendent Heidi Schmidt said when the grant ends in 2018, the school district will pick up the cost of E3, adding that the issue needs to be a priority everywhere.

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