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School districts add mental health coordinators

Decatur Daily - 11/26/2020

Nov. 26--The state Department of Education launched a pilot program this year to help school systems deal with mental health needs of their students, and area districts have received grants to add school-based mental health services coordinators.

Athens City Schools has just hired its first coordinator, and a high school counselor took on that role for Hartselle City Schools.

"Mental health has become such a focal point in our society today," said Mikayla Reese, the coordinator for Athens City Schools, who's working out of an office at Athens Middle School. "Many students are affected by mental health concerns, and it's important that they have someone to reach out to in order to gain the resources that they need to support their mental wellness."

According to Athens Interim Superintendent Beth Patton, students face a variety of issues, like anxiety and depression, and the pandemic is creating additional stress for them.

Reese, 27, a licensed master social worker, was previously a social work instructor at Bluegrass Community and Technical College in Lexington, Kentucky. Teachers, counselors and other school staff can refer students or families to Reese, who'll be a liaison among the schools, families and community agencies, coordinating available services and resources.

"I'll also be available to connect with students and parents who are virtual," by setting up Zoom meetings with them, Reese said.

In Hartselle City Schools, the mental health services coordinator, Dana Gladden, is monitoring the system's at-risk population, which includes students identified as homeless and those in foster care, according to Susan Hayes, the district's federal programs director. "She gets structures and supports in place for at-risk students."

Gladden was previously one of three counselors at Hartselle High School.

For the last two years, the Hartselle school district had already taken part in the School-Based Mental Health Services Program, a collaboration of the Alabama Department of Mental Health and its community mental health centers and the Department of Education to make sure students have access to mental health services.

"Because of the scope of the needs and the benefits (of the collaborative program) to students that we were seeing, we recognized we needed to do more for students and families who were struggling," Hayes said.

The COVID-19 pandemic, she said, has been "a complicating factor to anxieties that already existed."

Alabama lawmakers this year established the school-based coordinator position and appropriated $4.5 million for the grants. School districts can apply for the competitive grants of $40,000.

"We're focused on the whole child," not only helping students with academic needs and post-secondary goals, but their personal and social needs, said Laura Lou Smith, a counselor at Athens High School. "That's where (Reese) will step in, to help with personal and social issues that students are faced with. She'll help bridge the gap between (students') mental health needs and agencies in our community."

Due to the pandemic, "there are a lot of extra stressors on students," she said.

Hartselle City Schools is one of 72 school systems in Alabama involved in the School-Based Mental Health Services Program, and the school system collaborates with the Mental Health Center of North Central Alabama.

"Guidance counselors and teachers at the school level can make referrals, a parent can make a referral on a student's behalf and students themselves can seek help," Hayes said.

Hayes said students receive counseling at Hartselle City Schools campuses, and a mental health counselor from the Mental Health Center of North Central Alabama is now working with more than 75 students and families. "Some students just need to get over a rough patch," she said. "That's why the numbers fluctuate."

When the collaborative program first got started, Hayes thought that most referrals would have involve high school-age students.

"I would say most of the referrals are for middle grade students, and there are more elementary age referrals than I would have thought," she said.

-- or 256-340-2438. Twitter @DD_MAccardi.


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