On a typical day, a high school guidance counselor might help a student with college applications, offer advice for dealing with friendship or relationship difficulties, or address classroom bullying. But that same counselor is also helping students who struggle with homelessness, abuse, depression, suicidal ideation, and a host of other serious challenges.
In fact, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, approximately one in five school-age students suffers from a mental illness, and most do not get adequate treatment. Providing support to hundreds of students with limited resources can stretch the capacity of even the most dedicated school professional, leading to burnout and feelings of helplessness.
That’s where TRAILS, a program of the University of Michigan Comprehensive Depression Center, can help. TRAILS (Transforming Research into Action to Improve the Lives of Students) brings two evidence-based therapies, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and mindfulness, into schools by training school professionals in basic techniques.
CBT and mindfulness cultivate fundamental coping and self-care skills that can last a lifetime. Both have a demonstrated positive impact on social, emotional, behavioral, and academic outcomes for students, and both can be learned and practiced outside of a mental health clinic—making them ideal for school settings.
TRAILS partners with local mental health providers to train school professionals in CBT and mindfulness techniques, which they can then use with their students. After a 12-week coaching period, the school is equipped to offer CBT and mindfulness independently on an ongoing basis. To ensure that schools can sustain the program, TRAILS offers ongoing support in the form of consulting and online resources.
In early demonstration trials, TRAILS was shown to have an immediate impact on school professionals as well as the students they serve, and both groups are now praising the program:
“I was down on my myself. I was angry a lot. I never really thought things through, and just acted on emotion,” said one student participant. “CBT really helps you by opening you up to different ideas and ways of coping—it makes you aware that there’s a way out.”
One school professional partner stated that “Talk therapy and other things we were doing in the past weren’t working. We needed CBT, and we needed an expert to come in and show us how to do it. To have a group where we talk about these skills with students along with a mental health expert takes the weight off your shoulders and helps you collaborate. You feel like a professional who is being supported.”
It’s notable that CBT and mindfulness are beneficial for everyone, not just students diagnosed with mental health difficulties. That means that TRAILS has the potential to improve the lives of all Michigan students—as well as the school professionals dedicated to helping them.
Furthermore, not all children’s mental health providers have had the opportunity to be trained in evidence-based practices like CBT and mindfulness. In preparing those professionals to serve as TRAILS coaches, the program is also expanding the toolboxes of providers around the state.
Since its 2013 inception, word about TRAILS has spread quickly throughout the state, and demand has outpaced the program’s expansion timeline. In 2016, a grant from the Health Fund enabled TRAILS to grow: the team is currently recruiting and training 150 community-based mental health providers to become clinical coaches.
This network of coaches will in turn bring CBT and mindfulness to schools in all of Michigan’s 83 counties by providing coaching in their local schools. In 2018, TRAILS plans to begin working directly with schools statewide, but in the meantime they are building critical infrastructure that will ensure the program’s sustainability.
Beyond that, program director Elizabeth Koschmann believes CBT and mindfulness can benefit every child in every school in the country. “If we send our kids off to college and adulthood without any idea of how to handle rejection or disappointment or failure, we’re setting them up for disaster,” Koschmann explains. “CBT and mindfulness are skills that everyone can benefit from. Having an effective skill in your toolkit can help you stay grounded, help you remember your goals, help pick you up when you’re feeling down. You’re going to be able to not only survive those moments, you’re going to benefit from those moments—they are going to make you stronger.”
Mental health providers or schools interested in learning more about TRAILS are encouraged to subscribe to the TRAILS newsletter or contact TRAILS staff directly. More information about the program can also be found on www.trailstowellness.org.
In addition to the Michigan Health Endowment Fund, TRAILS also receives support from Michigan Medicaid, Prosper Road Foundation, the Mackey Family, and the University of Michigan Department of Psychiatry.