More AL schools add mental health counselors for students

More AL schools add mental health counselors for students

MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - Schools in Alabama are placing mental health counselors for students to visit during hours.

"A lot of times what looks like behavioral issues is a cry for help," said Kim Hammack, the director for the Mental Illness Community Program within the Mental Health Substance Abuse Division at the Department of Mental Health.

Hammack said in the last 12 months, 11 school systems have signed up to incorporate therapists in their schools.

"If you're able to put mental health in the school system, and the culture of that school is very accepting of the care, it is very positive for that child," she said.

Michelle Stovall is the student services coordinator for Madison County Schools. She said they added mental health counselors to four schools for the 2018-2019 school year, bringing the total number of schools with counselors up to 26.

"They provide students with a lot of support. They come in with trauma issues. That can be from anything, shock, fear," said Stovall. "Those things typically manifest in physical ways in the classroom."

Stovall said mental health counselors can address some of those situations or dependence and discipline issues.

There are currently 47 school systems with active school-based mental health collaboration partners. This is a collaboration between the Alabama Department of Mental Health and Alabama State Department of Education.

Jeremy Blair is the Chief Executive Officer at WellStone. WellStone is the health care provider for Madison County Schools, Hunstville City Schools, Madison City Schools, Cullman County Schools and Cullman City Schools. Blair said this totals to around 70 schools and nearly 40 therapists visiting those campuses.

"They love being part of the schools," he said. "It really has become a good valuable relationship between WellStone and the school systems that we are in."

Hammack said it removes some of the stigma when the therapists are ingrained in the school.

"It's a natural option that you have within your school," she said.

Blair said some benefits to mental health counselors include a decrease in the students' behaviors. It can increase their grades and their attendance in school.

"Those are probably the top three items I would say are the big benefits of school-based mental health," Blair said.

Students can request to see a mental health counselor. A parent or guardian would then need to fill out a form.

Teachers are also able to spot the need for a mental health counselor, and bring it up to a guidance counselor. WellStone trains teachers how to notice if someone may need a therapist.

"So you can help maybe distinguish a little bit between what's just a normal growth stage and just a temperamental issue and what is more a mental health mental illness issue," Blair said.

Blair said providing mental health in schools lifts one possible barrier for parents.

"Oftentimes transportation is a big barrier for clients getting the treatment," said Blair. "By providing that service in the schools we eliminate that barrier."

Blair said they calculated that the Huntsville area had a $1 million impact for parents. They did not need to spend the time taking off work, getting their child from work and then bringing them back.

"Plus it keeps them in the school longer. They are only coming out for that session rather than missing maybe two hours of the school day," Blair said.

There are barriers schools face when trying to add these therapists. A lot of it comes down to money. Schools are in charge of finding the funds for these specialists.

"They're looking and scrambling and trying to find out under seat cushions what they can use to maybe pay for some of this," he said.

For example, the Huntsville Hospital Community Foundation has provided WellStone with money the last few years to start mental health programs in schools.

On top of this, he said another barrier can include finding a comfortable and confidential place for the counselors inside the school.

Hammack said they are speaking with other school systems who are interested in adding mental health therapists in the future.

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