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Counseling via text? Allentown schools launch app-based mental health program

Teenager texting
A teenager uses their phone.

ALLENTOWN, Pa. — A new Allentown School District program will provide mental health services in the palm of students’ hands.

The district is giving its high school students access to ‘Counslr,’ an app that provides round-the-clock text-based sessions with licensed counselors to schools and businesses.

Superintendent Carol Birks said as youth in the district and across the Lehigh Valley face growing mental health needs, it is important to meet students where they’re at.

“Our students, they don't talk like we talked. They text everything,” Birks said, laughing. “So this gives them the opportunity to engage with someone in a way that's comfortable for them.”

Birks got the idea of implementing on-demand counseling services from the students who attended Governor Josh Shapiro’s local roundtable about mental health in May, she said.

Shapiro roundtable.jpg
Sarah Mueller
Gov. Josh Shapiro asks students questions during roundtable at parkland High School. On the left-to-right of him is State Sen. Jarrett Coleman, R-Lehigh, and Rep. Mike Schlossberg, D-Lehigh.

"It just amazed me the number of students that said they didn't have an accountable adult to talk with," Birks said.

Birks then tasked District Executive Director of Instructional Leadership Tiffany Polek to find a service that would fit the district's needs. Polek found Counslr and got the green light from the district's mental health taskforce.

The school board then approved piloting the program until the end of the school year at a cost of $22,000, which will be paid for through the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund.

There will be no direct cost to students to use the service.

“This is perfect for teens,” Polek said. “It just gives them another opportunity, another way to support their mental health. And it gives kids who wouldn't traditionally go to someone a way to talk.”

CEO of Counslr Josh Liss said that 81% of users had not used other counseling services before.

"The real goal is to reach more people who need that help and just aren't seeking it in the first place.”
CEO of Counslr Josh Liss

Liss said the app is meant to expand access to mental health help, but it is not a substitute for typical school counseling services or therapy because it does not provide long-term care.

“Our objective is to extend the reach of the counseling center. By no means are we trying to replace them,” Liss said.

“But from our perspective, the real goal is to reach more people who need that help and just aren't seeking it in the first place.”

Allentown School District is the first in the region to use the program. Liss said he hopes to expand its reach to other districts and companies throughout Pennsylvania.

How the app works

Users complete an intake form and are then matched with counselors that can best serve their needs, Liss said.

Counslr employs about 100 counselors, Liss said, and each one has a profile with specialties listed. The staff includes Spanish-speaking counselors.

On-demand service is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, year-round. Students can also schedule appointments with particular counselors.

Liss said the model works because stigma is the primary reason why people do not use mental health services.

"You can be in the room next to someone, you could be sitting in the library studying for finals, in a session with a counselor, and nobody around you would know," Liss said.

Students will have to verify their identity to use the app, and parental permission is required to use the app if the user is under 18. Only students ages 14 and up will have access.

Liss said the app will not be the right fit for every student because it does not provide long-term care, and counselors don't prescribe medication. He said if counselors realize they cannot help a student, they will refer them to other services.

“But any what we call ‘transitory issues’ that people face day-to-day, going throughout life, is what we were specifically designed to help address,” Liss said.

The Allentown School District ‘soft-launched’ the app in late December. Since then, about 60 students have used the app, Polek said.

Students received information about the app in their school emails.