Let’s dig into Kooth – the PA online mental health program for students

March 7 – In November 2022, the Pennsylvania General Assembly introduced a mental health pilot program for public schools in the commonwealth. 

The web-based counseling program is run by Kooth US and was given a grant through the Department of Human Services to bring this program to PA. 

It cost $3 million. 

School districts were able to opt in to the services without cost to the students, parents or the district. 

With the idea that it’s an online platform, a number of people are wondering who the students are really talking with? Some suggest there could be peer counseling. 

When teens in the country are facing serious issues, should we really have another teenager helping them with it? 

Pat Ryan of NewsTalk 103.7FM pointed out, “There’s a couple of different options. It’s not just peer to peer but I think about the kids that I grew up with, a couple idiots that were around me. So do I want them giving me advice on well, here’s how you deal with this, that and the other thing? Number two, I want some privacy and if this stuff gets out, here’s what Johnny was thinking at 12 years old, and then 15 years later, he’s got a job interview. He’s rising to the occasion when it comes to his career and all of a sudden I’ve got this that’s out there. That’s not a good thing, either. You can’t guarantee HIPPA’s going to be helping little Johnny after being 12 and having some problems.”

PA Representative Rob Kauffman said, “This is a great concern. This made it through not in the traditional legislative settlement. It was a behind the scenes grant. I don’t even think it was a traditional way. It should be a concern to every parent.” 

Michele Jansen of NewsTalk 103.7FM noted, “Listen to this, it says, they admit themselves they’re not cognitive behavioral therapy oriented. This is from their own website. Kooth’s digital and online safe spaces are a new context different to mainstream therapy and mental health services, their digital community and therapeutic support does not work the same as traditional health care services, or CBT, cognitive behavioral therapy, based models, widely researched across the NHS. This is coming from the UK and it’s very experimental. I found articles where they admit there’s no proven measure of results for this but I understand why the school districts who are strapped, do not have enough counselors to fulfill the need would go ahead and reach for this quote unquote, free help.”

Kauffman said, “I have to admit, I get concerned when I hear buzzwords like safe spaces. There are certain buzzwords that you read in these documents and it just throws up red flags because who is in the safe space? Who is excluded from the safe space? Who knows what’s happening in that safe space? Well, parents don’t. So, yeah. Red flag.”

“So what are we doing about it?” Ryan asked. “That’s the bigger question.” 

Jansen suggested, “We need awareness first and foremost.”

Kauffman added, “If this is going to be included in this year’s budget.”

There are some lawmakers in the state who are looking to put the brakes on this with legislation that prohibits these kinds of activities by third party vendors in PA schools.

Jansen said, “My understanding is Waynesboro has its own online thing. It’s not Kooth, but I would like to know more about any kind of online service. I know they told me there it’s completely like the parents are informed as far as wanting to get into that or whatever and that’s what it should be. It should be completely transparent.” 

Kauffman said, “That is the key is that whatever is happening, it requires parental involvement. What I fear is that this Kooth and the entire model is to remove the parents from the equation. The parents must be part of the equation.”

Jansen said, “Students at a recent Kooth day when they were telling them about this, they said that the students were made aware that their parents do not have to be involved in this and that would be completely wrong. They didn’t need to inform their parents.” 

“That is a red flag,” Kauffman said. 

Ryan insisted, “They are coming after your kids.”

Jansen added, “A promise of celebrity appearances, too, because that’s what mental health is all about.” 

Kauffman said, “Well, let’s just have Taylor Swift in there. Maybe she can help them out.”

Attorney Clint Barkdoll said, “My understanding is Pennsylvania was one of, if not the first state in the US that signed up to this program. My understanding of this program is that if the student is using the Kooth platform for the online counseling, it is done without parental knowledge or consent and that’s one of the concerns here, that this service is just sort of happening in a vacuum with no interface with the parents, and really no interface with school personnel. Naturally that causes some concerns. But we should also say some of this is being driven by that issue we keep talking about. We talk about teacher shortages. But if you drill down on that even more, school counselor shortages are particularly acute and schools are unable to fill these positions and they’re resorting to these kinds of online platforms to fill those gaps and it might not always be a good way to do it.”