A multimillion dollar investment in youth mental health programs will give every public school student in New Orleans access to care beginning in the coming school year, school officials and providers said Wednesday.

The program, ThriveKids Student Wellness Program, will expand to serve roughly 100,000 students in 160 schools across Orleans and Jefferson parishes, according to Greg Feirn, CEO of LCMC Health, the parent of Children’s Hospital New Orleans, which operates the program. Currently, 45,000 students in 80 schools are served by the program, primarily in Jefferson Parish.

The expanded program comes as New Orleans faces a youth mental health crisis, with students struggling to reacclimate to the classroom after pandemic disruptions and grappling with record levels of violence in their neighborhoods.

“It is trauma on top of trauma on top of trauma on top of trauma,” said Mayor Latoya Cantrell, speaking at a press conference in the library of the KIPP Morial School, noting that 54% of youth in the city have lost a loved one to violence. “And we are wanting, and we are doing something about it.” 

school hallway

School officials have said tackling the challenge is a priority, with NOLA Public Schools superintendent Avis Williams, who took the reins of the department last summer, stating that she would be looking for ways to address mental health issues.

The $10 million in funding over the next three years represents the city’s largest investment in achieving those goals so far.

"It will have a significant impact on the mental as well as the physical well-being of our scholars, and that's all needed as our scholars navigate our community and deal with the violence within our community," said Williams.

The funding will be allocated from the city’s remaining pot of federal American Rescue Plan money. A plan unveiled by Cantrell's administration in April for the remaining funds also proposed dedicating $8 million to a program to support youth workforce participation.

The initiative will help grow the program’s staffing to 100 staff members across the two parishes— including licensed social workers, professional counselors, and medical doctors—who will provide both mental and physical health treatment.

“If we want a healthy city and we want to grow our economy, we need to educate our children. And to educate our children, they need to be in school, and to be in school they need to be healthy,” said Feirn in an interview. “That’s what this is all about.”

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LCMC Health CEO Greg Feirn

The investment also marks a rare effort at coordination across the parish’s charter schools, which tend to operate largely independently.

Students in all schools across Orleans Parish will have access to virtual care, while students in the highest need schools will have access to in-person care. Those schools have not yet been identified, according to Feirn.

“We’re not going to wait for kids to come to us, we’re not going to wait for them to show up in our hospital, to show up in our emergency room,” said Lucio Fragoso, President and CEO of Children’s Hospital New Orleans, referring to the program as a “student health department.” 

Feirn said that he was not aware of a similar partnership elsewhere in the country.

“It’s turned into what we think will ultimately be a national model of centralizing resources and leveraging them across communities," he said.

Email Sophie Kasakove at Sophie.Kasakove@TheAdvocate.com or follow her on Twitter, @Sophie_Kasakove.