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Therapy, tutoring program helps students with mental health

Zach Fridell
Day Treatment Program counselor Craig Thornhill and Day Treatment Program teacher Donna Weinman look at their planners as they schedule the next few weeks. The pair tutors and counsels at-risk students at Steamboat Springs High School.
John F. Russell

— The way to hook youngsters is to provide them with caring, Donna Weinman said.

Students on the edge, at risk of losing their school, house or freedom, need to find a sympathetic face. That, she said, is the way to keep them in school.

“Once you’ve done that, you’ve got them,” Weinman said.

Weinman is the Day Treatment Program teacher at Steamboat Springs middle and high schools. The program, a collaboration among schools, Steamboat Mental Health and Northwest Colorado Board of Cooperative Educational Services, identifies and places at-risk youths under the tutelage of counselors and therapists.

Working with Weinman is Craig Thornhill, a Day Treatment Program counselor who travels among all three Routt County school districts. For him, dealing with 13- to 17-year-old students with emotional, academic, behavioral, family or community problems is something that extends beyond the classroom walls.

“By the time they get to me, they’re usually in pretty serious trouble,” Thornhill said. “Usually a kid who comes to me has a multitude of things going on, and they have to be officially staffed into the program.”

The next step is to hold weekly meetings among Thornhill, Weinman and the student. Thornhill travels to Hayden and Oak Creek, where he works with teacher Mimi Moll and meets with families and students in the evenings.

During the school day in Steamboat, Weinman works with the students to establish and achieve personalized goals.

The key is “looking at each person as an individual, and their behaviors are clues to tell us something. The trick is figuring out what it’s telling us,” she said.

Students are admitted into the program by referrals from schools – through recommendations by counselors and teachers – or from human services personnel. The program is voluntary and students may leave it at any time.

The students receive a mix of therapy and tutoring, depending on their needs. Weinman meets with the high school students in a skills lab, while students at the middle school meet during intervention time to receive the extra help they may need.

“I can also act as a buffer if they’re having a tough time,” Weinman said, by talking with the teacher and the student to meet class needs.

Thornhill said a normal caseload for him would be seven or eight students, but he currently is working with 11 to 12. Weinman’s side of the program is filled to capacity with eight students and several on the waiting list, she said.

Routt County challenges

The biggest issue facing students in Routt County is drugs, Thornhill said. He estimated that about half of the students he works with are dealing with some kind of substance abuse problem.

Thornhill worked on the Front Range for several years before moving to Steamboat, and he said the prevalence of drug abuse is much higher in Steamboat than he would have expected.

“One of the things I’ve seen is the particular amount of substance issues going on in the high school and, more importantly, I’ve seen in the middle schools,” Thornhill said. “It’s a little surprising to some people, but it’s surprisingly easy for these kids to get drugs and alcohol. Weed, pain pills, Ecstasy, that kind of stuff tends to float around the schools more than I think this community wants to recognize.”

The number of suicides and suicide attempts also is “mind boggling,” Thornhill said. By providing the therapy side of the program he also helps students deal with nonschool problems, he said.

“I see it as more of a problem with adults, but I want to be clear there are plenty of suicidal kids in this town,” he said.

– To reach Zach Fridell, call 871-4208 or e-mail zfridell@steamboatpilot.com


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