Program providing roadmap to better mental health for Three Rivers students

Three Rivers Middle School Guidance Counselor Aaron Hess teaches a sixth-grade class about coping skills during a TRAILS lesson. (Alek Haak-Frost|Watershed Voice)

It can be hard for a kid to navigate the pitfalls of adolescence. The staff at Three Rivers Middle School wants to help. That help comes in many forms, one of which is a program called TRAILS – Transforming Research into Action to Improve the Lives of Students.

Pioneered by the University of Michigan in 2013, the program has been implemented districtwide in Three Rivers, grades 3-12.

TRAILS takes a three-tier approach: Universal education and awareness for all students; early intervention for students with a mental-health concern, and crisis intervention for students who may be suicidal.

In Three Rivers, it’s also an evolving program. Three Rivers Middle School guidance counselor Aaron Hess and social worker Andrea Scott started out using TRAILS in a group format, with students signing up to participate. 

But now, as part of the program’s expansion, Hess has begun going into classrooms to reach more students.

Three Rivers Middle Schoolers participate in a TRAILS session during their sixth-grade team leadership class. (Alek Haak-Frost|Watershed Voice)

“I’ve partnered up this year with our team leadership classes, which is our sixth-grade group,” Hess said. “And I am essentially running the TRAILS program without doing it in a group format.

“So I’m taking the lessons and then I’m catering them to the classroom, and just really appropriating the toolkit, which is what TRAILS kind of teaches the kids: ‘So if I’m feeling this, here’s what I can do’ or ‘thinking this, here’s what I can do,’” Hess said.

“That’s been a huge thing, and the kids are really receptive to it because I think it is a very purposeful program. They resonate well with it, and they like that we’re caring about them more than ‘if you get an A in my classroom, you’re an important kid.’ No, it’s like we care about you as a human being.”

Program origins

When TRAILS was created by the University of Michigan’s Department of Psychiatry in 2013, it served just two Ann Arbor schools. Today it has been instituted in 700 schools in Michigan, and TRAILS has provided training, materials, and implementation support to schools in 50 of Michigan’s 56 intermediate school districts.

The program serves a critical need, as nearly 50 percent of adolescents have experienced symptoms of anxiety, depression or other mental health issues, and suicide is a leading cause of death among young people. Yet 80 percent of youth who need mental health services lack access to them, U of M statistics show.

School-based programs help fill that void – a fact recognized by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the Michigan Legislature, who included $50 million for TRAILS in the current state budget.

TRCS Superintendent Nikki Nash said district leaders decided in 2018-19 there was an “increased need to support students socially and emotionally,” and settled on TRAILS as a research-driven program that could teach students self-awareness, self-management, responsible decision-making, relationship skills, and social awareness. 

The goal, she said, is to “promote self-resilience and regulation skills.”

‘Working with the whole person’

(Alek Haak-Frost|Watershed Voice)

Scott, the middle school social worker, was the first in the district to undergo TRAILS training at U of M, and lobbied for more Three Rivers staff to be trained, but that goal was stalled when the pandemic hit.

Three Rivers also underwent a change in superintendents, with Ron Moag resigning in October 2021 and Nash, then curriculum director, getting promoted to the top job. When Nash took over, she asked Scott to give a “whole district introduction to TRAILS training” during a professional development session. 

“So every teacher in the district heard about what it is, how this is beneficial for students to teach them skills,” Scott said. “Afterwards, I told them if anyone wanted more information or wanted me to help flesh it out so they could use it in their classrooms to let me know. I’d be willing to give more information. So that kind of got the ball rolling, I think.”

Hess said there’s been a greater emphasis in recent years on going beyond academics to address the social and emotional well-being of students. TRAILS allows staff to be “more purposeful about implementing those lessons and daily activities in the classroom.”

“So that it’s not just ‘Hey, I’m teaching you math,’” Hess said. “I’m teaching you to be mindful that when you come into my classroom, you might be anxious because math is tough for you, here are some things that you can do to kind of calm yourself to perform better academically. 

“So really working with the whole person. I think that’s where I see TRAILS being very valuable.”

Measuring impact

(Alek Haak-Frost|Watershed Voice)

TRAILS prides itself on being a research-driven program that relies on “rigorous evaluation” of its programming and implementation model. Program outcomes are measured, and stakeholders are given reports to identify how to refine and strengthen the program in their schools.

TRAILS is also in the midst of several research studies, including one in Detroit Public Schools, to measure the program’s impact.

The program’s founders acknowledge that TRAILS has limitations. It’s not a replacement for therapy and the lessons are typically taught by teachers who have been trained but are not mental health professionals. And while it’s a solid supplemental program that provides early intervention and crisis management for students, it won’t be as effective for students who need more extensive help.

What it can do, however, is provide a higher level of support for those kids who need it in a group environment, bypassing the usual barriers like access, money, and societal stigma. If everyone is learning it, no one is singled out, and that practice of self-care is normalized.

“I think it helps the kids, knowing it’s not just them, right?” Scott said. “Like when you go into a group of 10 peers, and we emphasize, ‘this isn’t therapy.’ We’re not asking the kids to open up about their personal situations, and why it might help them. But it’s, ‘Hey, here’s what depression is, here’s what anxiety is, this is how common it is, this is what normal symptoms might look like.’ So we’re not asking kids ‘what is depression for you?’ It’s just kind of normalizing it.”

Scott added she’s seen how the program has given her students confidence and a sense of connection among peers who participated in a group with them. 

“It’s like, ‘Hey, at some point in life, you may have these feelings or you might be experiencing this.’ We all do, right? So I think it helps them feel not alone,” she said. “Like I’m walking through these halls feeling like I’m the only kid who might be anxious when, oh, now I’m sitting in a group of 10 kids who — and they do sometimes open up — and say, ‘Hey, this is my situation.’ 

“And the kids support each other. So then when they leave the group, they are given the tools and the skills but I think also that sense of confidence that, you know, I’m not walking through the halls as the only anxious student here.’”

Alek Haak-Frost is executive editor and publisher of Watershed Voice.

This story is part of the Mental Wellness Project, a solutions-oriented journalism initiative covering mental health issues in southwest Michigan, created by the Southwest Michigan Journalism Collaborative. SWMJC is a group of 13 regional organizations dedicated to strengthening local journalism. For more info, visit