In the library of Sunflower Elementary school on Gillette’s southwest side, Dr. William Heineke is hard at work as a psychologist. He’s putting on two hats, with shorts over his pants, mismatched shoes, and instead of a pen, he tucks a toothbrush into his lapel. The Mardi Gras mask he’s putting on followed by his eye glasses might be deceiving, but this wild outfit is part of a serious effort to help troubled elementary school kids. They’ve been diagnosed with things like anxiety, depression, anger issues and are at risk for suicide.
Heineke sits himself down in a chair and waits for the campers in his summer program to come find him. He said the idea behind this exercise to encourage kids to go slow and observe, to work together and also to have fun. “It’s kind of playful. And we know children like to play and that’s their language,” said Heineke.
He has to cut his explanation short, as a group little kids — all under 12 — file into the library with smiles beaming across their faces. Five weeks into a six-week summer program these young kids stay calm — quietly whispering and working together. For each silly thing they notice about his outfit and write down, they score a point.
For over 30 years Dr. Heineke has been running this summer program. He said he’s teaching, “the basic behaviors of cooperation, following instructions, staying on task. These are troubled kids that struggle with those issues.”
In this group therapy summer camp, around 80 kids work on their ability to weather different situations under the guise of fun — riding the school bus to take a tour of the firehouse and swimming in a public pool. And after a day of excitement they come back to Sunflower Elementary for yoga and story time — an opportunity to learn how to relax and calm themselves.
“So they are growing. And to me, behaviors come first and then they can get the academics,” Heineke said.
Over the last 30 years, Heineke said he’s seen Campbell County School District #1 doing more and more to address the mental well-being of its students.
School counselors, and even teachers, can be an important source of support for kids who are struggling with mental health issues. But when summer break rolls around, emotional turmoil doesn’t go on vacation. Studies indicate suicide is the second-leading cause of death nationally for people between the ages of 10 and 24. To make sure kids get consistent support year round, Heineke’s program is part of a unique partnership between his employer — Campbell County Health — and the school system. And this integrated approach is an effort much bigger than the summer camp.
Together these two organizations are also responsible for Wyoming’s only school-based health center, called The Kid Clinic. Kip Farnum, director of Student Support Services for the school district brings me to the parking lot of what looks like an elementary school. “Right now we just pulled up to our Kid Clinic, which is the old Hillcrest Elementary here in Gillette,” explained Farnum.
This re-purposed elementary school now provides primary care, and mental health and substance-abuse services to young people across Campbell County. “And that’s not only school kids, but kids six-weeks to 21 years of age,” said Farnum.
Since opening the doors five years ago, said Farnum, “Every year we are increasing the amount of students we see by anywhere from 35-45%. It’s just a super successful model.”
He said grants helped get the project off the ground. The school provided the space and Campbell Health provided the clinicians. And because they take insurance and Medicaid, the clinic now financially sustains itself, said Farnum. For the uninsured, there’s a sliding scale fee system, and Farnum said kids with limited resources get services for free.
And even when summer vacation hits, the clinic is still in full swing.
“Our school counselors are off but our mental health providers at the clinic — every working day — they are available to the kids,” said Farnum. “It’s just an excellent opportunity for kids to get that continued care throughout the summer.”
With four mental health providers working full-time, Farnum said the demand indicates there doing something right. “And I know our graduation rate is going up. I believe our attendance rates are up. So I think these things really help.”
What really motivates these efforts, Farnum said, is an attempt to save lives. “We’ve had some terrible suicide issues in our community.”
And across the country, the number of kids and adolescents admitted to children’s hospitals for thoughts of suicide or self-harm more than doubled during the last decade, according to research released this year.
But in Campbell County, Farnum said, the number of completed suicides has started to decline in the last couple years. “And I think a lot of it has to do with the efforts we’ve made in our community,” said Farnum. “I think this sort of facility helps us. And hopefully, we’ll be able to see that number drop even more.”
Farnum said they still lose students every year to suicide — a potent reminder why providing year round services is such important work.