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Educators and mental health advocates team up to help students

The newly formed SMART group will meet throughout the school year to coordinate access to mental health services for students and families.

WEST SENECA, N.Y. — In order to get more resources to students and families struggling with mental health issues, representatives from dozens of school districts and agencies got together on Wednesday to figure out how to best help out.

They held the first meeting of a collaborative called “Supporting Mental Health by Advocating for Resources Together,” or SMART, for short.

“Mental health is such a challenging animal, it’s not an easy fix, and so when we come together as a group like this, we can pick the brains of everybody in that room and really see how can we as a community support our children,” said Stacie Dziwulsk, director of Family Support with Mental Health Advocates of WNY.

With mental health issues magnified by the COVID pandemic, educators from 26 Erie County school districts and mental health advocates from 23 organizations have joined together to form the SMART collaborative. 

“The challenge is certainly our social workers, and our counselors, the school leaders, all the faculty, and the staff have done a tremendous job over the last three years in supporting our students. But there is a lack of connectivity in some cases between the systems, and so what we’re trying to do is really build more explicit connection between the school system and the mental health social service providers,” said Dr. Michael Capuana, district superintendent of Erie 1 BOCES.

They want to make those resources easy to access for families and students and say children of all ages are struggling. 

The Sweet Home Central School District started its Family Support Center in 1993.

“It helps to expedite with counseling appointments, it helps with collaboration, it helps if parents have barriers as far as transportation where they don’t have to have long waiting lists, so that’s really been helpful, as well,” said Anne Nowak, director of the Family Support Center with the Sweet Home Central School District.

This isn’t just a one-time thing, it will keep going with the group meeting every eight weeks throughout the school year.

“We have to keep asking ourselves the question, how are the children? Are the children well? And if our children aren’t well, then we’re not doing our job,” said Michael Cornell, superintendent with the Hamburg Central School District.

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