Educators rally for funds to expand mental health services

State looks to expand school mental health services

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (WSFA) - Mental health coordinators in nearly every school district across the state are the latest public school champions in Alabama. 

The Alabama Legislature allocated $4.5 million dollars to fund positions for 102 licensed social workers in public schools starting in October 2020. In three short months the coordinators have already seen thousands of students.

Assistant State Superintendent Terry Roller says the coordinators are akin to air traffic controllers.

“As the children’s needs come in we call them in and disperse them to the right program, or the right person, or the right support,” Roller explained.

Coordinators amass resources inside and outside the school district to pull from when students show signs of academic or emotional decline. Local therapists with the Alabama Department of Mental Health come to the school to work with students who need their services.

Joy Stanley, Auburn City School’s mental health coordinator, was with the district prior to this program and says the work was daunting.

“Overwhelming is probably an understatement,” Stanley acknowledged. “I vividly remember the a school counselor looking at me and saying ‘I am not trained to handle this.’ I can assure you our school counselors are now very trained to handle this and our social workers are very trained to handle this.”

The mental health service coordinators call themselves the missing link for students and believe the results are undeniable.

“Tuscumbia City [school’s mental health coordinator] sent me a text this morning that said, ‘be sure and say this time last year there were twelve pages of kids who were struggling and not passing - now there are four,” reported Dr. Kay Warfield, who oversees the state’s coordinators.

Technology is also playing a vital role in wellness assessments.

“Our kids can mash an emoji for that day to alert someone how they feel and they immediately contact that student at home,” Warfield explained.

Some districts are using software for early intervention, something the state aims to implement in each system.

“Bark for Schools has already flagged and alerted me to several suicide notes and drug use,” shared Laura Bruce, coordinator for Ozark City Schools. “We were able to get the right interventions at the right time for these students.”

There’s no question, students are struggling from a lack of socialization normally brought on by in-person learning. The coordinators are encouraging group collaborations through virtual calls to reconnect students with their peers.

“We are really trying hard to wrap around these kids and provide them some of the skills and feelings they are missing, especially concerning isolation and dark thoughts,” stated Warfield.

Now the focus shifts to expansion, adding more coordinators and software.

“We need an increase to provide one of these coordinators for each school system,” state Dr. Eric Mackey, State Superintendent of Education. “We have 102 coordinators and 142 systems.”

Representative Nathanial Ledbetter championed this funding during the last legislative session and recommitted his support to the program during a news conference on Wednesday. Ledbetter said there will be a significant focus on mental health funding in the upcoming session. 

“This will be the largest package of mental health funding we’ve had since Lurleen Wallace,” Ledbetter said, referencing Lurleen Wallace who briefly served as Alabama’s governor during the late 1960s.

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