BURLEY, Idaho (AP) — Students in need of mental health counseling have a new resource in one southern Idaho school district.

The Times-News reports the Cassia County School District has launched a pilot program to provide free counseling to students at four schools, and officials plan to expand the program district-wide. The year-long pilot program – called CONNECT – launched Oct. 1.

If a student from another school in the district needs counseling, they won't be turned away, said district spokeswoman Debbie Critchfield.

Students, parents, teachers or counselors can request the counseling, which aims to help students deal with stress, anxiety, depression, bullying, addictions or other life problems.

The counseling is provided through a pool of license clinicians in the community.

Critchfield said the program is the first of its kind in Idaho. The district joined with Intermountain Healthcare and Blomquist-Hale Employee/Student Assistance for the program, using $25,000 from private donations, a hospital grant and the state's Safe and Drug Free Schools program.

The idea for the program was developed after a year of conversations and collaborations in the community, Critchfield said.

"This is a great example of the school board exercising local control," she said.

Once the student and counselor are connected, the counselor will determine how many visits the student requires. Since the program was implemented, five students have used the services.

"The first student to use the services was actually from the elementary school," Critchfield said.

School Board Member Darin Moon said the idea of the program really resonated with district officials, and said public education is "woefully underfunded and unequipped" to deal with the emotional issues of students.

Moon said when there are school shootings across the nation or suicides at local schools, everyone is upset for several weeks, and then things go back to the way they've been for decades.

"We have children crying for help and we are doing the same things we were doing 30 or 40 years ago," Moon said. "You can't take enough guns away to solve this problem and you can't completely stop bullying."

Suicide rates across the region remain high, Critchfield said.

Despite the district bringing in motivational speakers and holding training for staff to deal with students at risk for suicide, "it wasn't moving the needle," Critchfield said.

Students using the program will not be identified by the district, but the district will track how many students use the services and for what purposes so the program can be refined in the future.

"You can't get to the academic side of things if you don't address the whole child," Critchfield said. "When you provide that social and emotional support, then you can get to the learning place."

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