AUGUSTA — Students affected by mental health or social-emotional issues often experience poor school attendance and achievement, among other problems.

To ensure that schools across the state are better equipped to address these concerns, the Maine Department of Education is launching a new initiative with the help of a $5.5 million grant from the federal Department of Health and Human Services.

“The Department (of Education) has been hearing from local schools and taking note of data that shows how mental health impacts all aspects of a student’s life,” MDOE spokeswoman Rachel Paling said. “When this funding opportunity was announced, our team jumped on the opportunity.”

Last spring The Forecaster published a series of stories on how the mental health needs of students are challenging school districts.

Even with a heightened “acuity of need” around student anxiety and depression, Gorham Superintendent of Schools Heather Perry told the paper, many people are unaware of the new demands on educators.

“The issues schools are dealing with now are not the same issues they had to deal with just 10 or 15 years ago,” Perry said at the time.

Called Maine-AWARE, the program will begin this year in three pilot districts with the hope it can be expanded statewide over the five-year life of the grant.

The goal of Maine-AWARE is to help school districts develop “a comprehensive framework to support student mental health … through collaboration between education and health providers,” the Maine Department of Education said in a press release.

“The project is grounded in a belief that implementation of … social-emotional learning supports, coupled with universal behavioral health screening, can help schools and communities focus resources on students and families with the greatest need,” the release said.

The three pilot districts are the Calais School Department, Regional School Unit 10 based in Rumford and RSU 40 based in Union.

Paling said these three districts were chosen because they’re “representative of the challenges faced by Maine’s school districts.”

Other factors that contributed to the choice of these three districts included the rate of uninsured children, whether the district employs a licensed clinical social worker, and existing relationships with community-based mental health agencies.

Paling said there are several key targets that Maine-AWARE wants school districts to be able to hit.

The most important one is to provide all at-risk students and families – or those who exhibit serious mental or behavioral health disorders – with team-based, targeted interventions.

Paling said the education department would hire an overall program coordinator to manage Maine-AWARE and that a co-coordinator position would also be created at the Office of Child and Family Services in Maine’s Department of Health and Human Services.

The intent, Paling added, is to “build more robust, comprehensive and coordinated support systems” for students. She said there would be some common tools offered to all districts, “but schools will (also) be able to select evidence-based curricula based on local needs.”

Most schools already have someone on staff who can “be present during a crisis,” but, Paling said, “it’s also important to know when you need to seek additional support. Telling the difference between what is normal stress and what might be signs of mental illness is not easy.”

“Over the (next) five years we hope to identify the major gaps in (mental health) support for school-aged children, as well as identify strategies to bridge them,” she said.

Kate Irish Collins can be reached at 710-2336 or [email protected]. Follow Kate on Twitter: @KIrishCollins.