Cheney Free Press -

By Lee Hughes
Staff reporter 

Changing Medical Lake's narrative one family at a time

Innovative school district mental health program sending ripples across the state, U.S.


Last updated 10/3/2019 at 11:18am

MEDICAL LAKE — The Medical Lake School District is working to develop a variety of methods and programs to “change the narrative” of the educational experience for it’s students and staff, and at least one of those programs is getting considerable attention.

The district’s innovative mental health program called “Mind Your Health” recently began offering free mental health and other services to the Medical Lake community.

Leading that program is Student Services Director Tawni Barlow who’s past careers in state corrections and social services developed a passion to plug the so-called pipeline to prison, is the catalyst behind Mind Your Health.

Reactive system

Barlow, with a self-described passion for helping people, began her adult working career in 1993 at the Department of Corrections and later as an investigator for Child Protective Services, while also earning a master’s degree in counseling from Whitworth University.

But both jobs were what she called “reactive,” and did nothing to help or address what she has called the “pipeline to prison.” Although she thought she could help families from the inside, she eventually realized it was the wrong approach.

In 2013 she found herself in court weekly, or in a hospital investigating injured babies, or those born with a heroine or methamphetamine addiction. And she occasionally bumped into women she’d worked with in the prison system.

“It was the same people in crisis, over and over again,” Barlow said.

After 20 years of working inside reactive systems, she was burning out.

“I was bleeding; my heart was dying,” she said, realizing that the work she was doing wasn’t making a difference.


One day she randomly ran into two Medical Lake School District counselors she’d interned with while doing her Whitworth post-graduate counseling work. She shared feelings of despair, and that same night received call from then district superintendent Pam Veltri, who offered Barlow a job as a social worker. Barlow jumped on the opportunity.

The job offered plenty of flexibility and Barlow began connecting people with services and resources both in and out of school. Help me help you, became her mantra.

“It was awesome,” Barlow said, recalling the flexibility the position offered. “It was like my dream job.”

She began recognizing a connection between students and families and the reactive prison and social service systems — the pipeline to prison. Reenergized, Barlow went back to school, and in 2015 became a school psychologist.

But fate has a way of putting people right where they’re needed, not where they necessarily want to be.

In 2018 the district’s new superintendent, Tim Ames, asked Barlow to become the districts special education director, a job she didn’t want. After all, she had her dream job. She reluctantly accepted the position.

That same year Barlow began teaching at Whitworth. And between her job at the school district and teaching at Whitworth she was doing the motivational work she had long wanted to do, helping families and giving back to her professional community; she was doing “preventative, good work,” Barlow said.

She encountered Whitworth graduate student Suzzane Greenhall in early 2018, a Medical Lake resident who asked if she could intern under Barlow. Medical Lake lacked any mental health services, and Greenhall shared her dream of opening a free and reduced mental health clinic there.

“And our dreams sort of started to align,” Barlow said.


By this time Barlow had been named director of student services at the school district, giving her the ability to set the programs agenda.

While dialoguing with Greenhall’s director about her internship, Barlow learned of a free and reduced family mental health program in Hillyard that utilized Whitworth graduate student marriage and family therapist interns who needed supervised clock hours to be licensed.

And a light went off in Barlow’s head.

“We need to do that in Medical Lake,” she thought.

She began a dialogue with Whitworth duplicating the Hillyard program through the Medical Lake school system. That eventually morphed into the Mind Your Health program that combines “systems of support” — mental health, academic support, physical health and individual and familial social and emotional support — which are traditionally “siloed” into separate support mechanisms.

The program is available to students, faculty and staff, families and the entire Medical Lake community.

It’s one way the school district is changing the narrative, by changing the way people perceive mental health. It’s eliminating the false stigma that has long been associated with seeking help.

“Changing the narrative on mental health is huge for us,” Ames said. “It’s OK to seek out help. It’s OK to seek out help for a friend, a family member, a community member. There are no services in our community.”

The district recently completed a “perception survey” of students, parents, faculty and staff, and mental health was identified as a “don’t talk about it” topic, Ames said.

“Well, lets change that narrative and say it’s really OK to talk about it and seek help,” Ames said. “It’s not viewed as sign a of weakness, it’s just part of life that people struggle with anxiety, depression … and it’s now OK to seek that help. That’s changing the narrative.”

It’s working. Ames noted that as of June more than 100 people had sought some form of help through the district’s the mental health program.

Growing interest

The program is getting plenty of attention from state educational and mental health communities; education professionals have reached out to Barlow and her staff to discuss the benefits of their program. Other universities including Eastern Washington and Gonzaga have expressed an interest in getting involved.

“We’re becoming a state leader for Washington state schools,” Barlow said.

And last week Medical Lake was one of two state school districts chosen to lead a nationwide effort regarding the development of mental health programs in school systems.

Eventually the district plans to have graduate-level mental health resources in every school — two to three in each building — supervised by the districts licensed professionals.

“They always give me the credit, but no, it’s Tawni,” Ames said.

Lee Hughes can be reached at


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