Washington City business aims to help teens navigate challenges with anonymous texting platform

Stock image | Photo by nastya_gepp, Pixabay, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — Facing personal fears and grappling with trauma can be challenging no matter a person’s age or personal history. Opening up about mental health in a face-to-face conversation with a stranger, no matter how qualified, can be so intimidating that it might seem even worse than confronting the problems themselves.

SchoolPulse co-founder Iuri Melo poses with an example poster like those used at Desert Hills to allow students to opt-in to the text service, Washington City, Utah, May 6, 2021 | Photo by Ammon Teare, St. George News

To address these obstacles, SchoolPulse was launched four years ago as a social and emotional learning tool available to intermediate and high school students, said co-founder Iuri Melo.

“I’m a local therapist of almost 20 years, and a licensed clinical social worker,” Melo said. “In 2017, there were several suicides that happened down here, as well as other students’ deaths. And I began to ask myself questions like, ‘What’s going on? What am I missing?’ So I reached out to Trent Staheli, who’s the other co-founder, and we created a resource platform to help students.”

Based in Washington City, SchoolPulse gives students a confidential and anonymous platform to track their wellbeing and talk with trained workers through their phone.

Tools available to students and staff

To participate, students opt-in to SchoolPulse via text or by scanning a QR code, and then they begin to receive automated messages as well as personalized texts from a team of 10 trained professionals.

On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, students receive automated texts that include links to podcasts on mental health or navigating day-to-day challenges, personal surveys and messages of encouragement. If they choose, they can access the data collected from week to week to track their progress – all available via text.

A view of the dashboard students can access through text, including data from survey responses and links to podcasts, St. George, Utah | Courtesy of SchoolPulse, St. George News

Conversations between students and SchoolPulse staff are transparent and completely anonymous, Melo said. This encourages students who may not have opened up to a school counselor or confidante to voice their genuine concerns.

“We get unbelievable conversations with adolescents,” Melo said. “When the communication goes out, we truly don’t know who we’re talking with until they choose to identify themselves. If they’re struggling with something like suicidal ideation, we may be able to ask for their information and connect them to their counselor at the school.”

The service was first tested at Desert Hills High School with the approval and feedback of Principal Justin Keate, as well as students and staff. Keate has since signed up Desert Hills for the full service tool currently available and said the resource has been invaluable at his school.

“It’s available for everybody to opt-in, and it’s so hard to find really good positive behavior interventions that every kid can benefit from,” Keate said. “I’m grateful that our students have the opportunity to benefit from it, and I’ve seen nothing but positive interactions through this program.”

On the administrative side, while students’ conversations and individual survey responses are anonymous, the cumulative data is available for school staff to check the “pulse” of their schools. Administrators and teachers have access to data to make decisions that will affect student health as well as tools to identify particularly challenging days and weeks, Keate said.

Confronting mental health 

At Desert Hills, there are just four counselors to support over 1,000 students. Keate said the accessibility of SchoolPulse helps schools reach more students in a proactive manner. According to the National Alliance of Mental Illness, around 17% of youth aged 6-17 experience a mental health disorder.

Members of the Desert Hills Hope Squad greeted students and handed out stickers with info on SchoolPulse at their annual Hope Week, St. George, Utah, February 8, 2021 | Courtesy of Justin Keate, St. George News

SchoolPulse is not meant to replace school counselors, and there are many interventions and tools available to school counselors that a text service cannot provide. However, Keate said the combination of the two is well worth the cost of the subscription.

For high schools and middle schools that sign up with SchoolPulse, the prices vary from $1 per student each month on an annual plan, and $2 per student each month on a monthly plan. For reference, the average salary for a full-time school counselor in Utah is $47,000, which would equate to about $10 per student each month for a school the size of Desert Hills.

“What kind of a price do you put on heading off a possible student’s suicide?” Keate said. “What price do you put on a place where people can respond and listen to the concerns of kids who are struggling? That’s invaluable. When you figure the educational value that kids get out of it, it’s an awesome deal.”

SchoolPulse was formally launched in January of 2021, but has been partially available in a number of schools since its inception in 2017. The service is currently available at Desert Hills High School, Desert Hills Middle School, Pine View High School and Millcreek High School in the St. George region, as well as 30-plus schools across the country.

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.

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