For some kids, and their parents, growing up can be like making their way through a mine field.

Each step is potentially dangerous and can result in dire consequences depending on the choices made. Some young people get through it unscathed. Others don’t.

Luckily, local parents can rest a little easier thanks to the Student Assistance Program, or SAP. The goal of this Human Services Center program, which has been in existence since 1988, is to help identify students who are experiencing difficulties which prevent them from learning and achieving success in school.

Every middle and high school in Lawrence County, and the state of Pennsylvania, has a student assistance program.

Dan Barnes, who has 35 years experience working with kids and their families, and his staff of two, meet with guidance counselors, administrators and teachers from every school district in the county, every week of the school year. They receive referrals from these teams of professional about students who may be having trouble coping for a number of reasons. Barnes estimates that over the years, the student assistance program has assisted thousands of kids.

And it’s a good thing that Lawrence County’s kids have SAP available to them. Consider these national statistics, provided by Columbia University’s TeenScreen program.

•In the United States, 21 percent of youth suffer from a mental health condition serious enough to cause impairment.

•Every year, 3.4 million U.S. high school students think seriously about killing themselves.

•Almost 2 million high school students report having made a prior suicide attempt. More than 600,000 students report having made an attempt that required medical attention.

“Life today can be overwhelming for our kids,” Barnes commented. “Life is a lot more complex. And I don’t care how strong you are as a kid, the media and peer pressure is huge. If you don’t quite fit the mold makes it really tough on kids. There is tremendous pressure on kids today as far as fitting in, being accepted and achieving in our school systems.”

Once a child has been identified, Barnes or one of the professionals he works with, will contact the parent or guardian of the child to obtain written permission for the SAP process to begin. Together, school representatives, parents and guardians as well as SAP team members develop an action plan to improve success in school.

This can be achieved in a number of ways, including tutoring or peer mentoring as well as through other services from community-based agencies.

“We stay in the background as a resource for them (families),” Barnes explained. “This program does not provide counseling. It provides assessment and consultation. We make recommendations, which can be anything from what the parents can do at home, to telling them that a son or daughter needs professional help. We assist families in navigating the mental health system as well.”

“We feel good because we have a chance in some of these kids’ lives to identify problems that can be treated successfully,” Barnes said, “rather then taking its course and then finding out as an adult that it has developed into a more serious mental health problem that is harder to treat,” Barnes added.

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