United Way and Birmingham area educators team up to address the mental health crisis in schools

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In the photo, Birmingham Superintendent Lisa Herring, United Way CEO Drew Langloh and Alabama Superintendent of Public Schools Eric Mackey. Photo courtesy of United Way of Central Alabama

Let this sink in.

According to numerous studies, one in five children have mental and behavior issues in the United States.

Meanwhile, recent research published by the American Psychological Association shows a 52% increase in adolescents reporting symptoms consistent with major depression from 2005 to 2017.

On April 23rd, city and county school superintendents throughout the five-county Birmingham metro area, Eric Mackey, Alabama’s Superintendent of Public Schools and community leaders gathered at the United Way of Central Alabama to discuss the impact of the mental health crisis on students and the urgent need to place more mental health professionals in schools.

Need for Mental Health Services

School Superintendents and community leaders met on April 23rd at United Way of Central Alabama about the Bold Goals Mental Health Action Plans. Photo courtesy of United Way of Central Alabama

At the meeting, Alabama Superintendent Mackey recognized the need for mental health services in the state’s schools.

“We have true needs when it comes to mental health and health services for students. We spend less money on mental health than any state in the nation. Even if we doubled what we are spending, we would be way down at the bottom.”

United Way’s Assistant Vice President of Health, Ryan Parker echoed Mackey’s comments, “We’ve heard from superintendents, principals, teachers, education professionals and health and human services organizations that mental health is a huge issue that we need to address now.”

Four Local School Districts

At the podium, United Way’s Ryan Parker moderating panel of educators from the four pilot school districts. Photo courtesy of United Way of Central Alabama

Over the past year, through the United Way of Central Alabama’s Bold Goals Coalition, which represents more than 200 organizations in our community, initiated a pilot project aimed at enhancing mental health services in four local school districts – Tarrant City, Pell City, Homewood and Blount County.

With collaborative funding from the districts, as well as United Way, the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham, Blue Cross and Blue Shield’s Caring Foundation and the Anne B. LaRussa Foundation of Hope, the Coalition has developed a three-part action plan for addressing mental health in schools.

Three Components

The Bold Goals Mental Health Action Plan for schools consists of three components.

Mental health training for school staff

Over the past year, the four schools have implemented mental health training programs for their faculty and staff. Training has included showing teachers and support staff how to identify mental health issues with their students and help them understand how to de-escalate situations when there is a crisis in the classroom.

“Teachers and staff are being presented with kids who show signs of depression and anxiety as young as 1st grade. We are being prepared for that and learning how to address it,” stated Tarrant City Schools Superintendent Shelly Mize.

Assessment and identification of student and staff mental health needs

Each school district is striving to assess and identify the mental health needs of all their students and staff. One goal is to have every student screened by the teachers.

The Homewood School District has been screening students for mental health for years.

“All (Homewood) teachers have been screening their children 3 times a year,” Leigh Cohn Long, Homewood City Schools’ Director of Guidance, told the attendees at the April 23rd meeting. “It is quick and easy for teachers to do. They start by identifying internal and external behavior. Does the student seem withdrawn or aggressive? There are 4-5 different areas we look at and then we rate the student as low, moderate or high risk. This helps us determine behavioral plans.”

Provide mental health services and treatment

Panel of educators from the four pilot school districts implementing mental health action plans. Photo from United Way of Central Alabama

The third component – find ways to provide mental health services and treatment to address student mental health needs. Students may require individual counseling, group therapy or a support group.

The Bold Goals Coalition is seeking ways to help school districts find ways to establish and leverage mental health services.

It’s not an easy task. Superintendent Mackey stated that he would like to have mental health professionals in every school, but reminded the participants that like the teacher shortage in Alabama, there is also a shortage of qualified mental health counselors.

Progress – the numbers

Ending the first year of the three year Bold Goals pilot project, the four School Districts reported that they have made significant progress. In just one year, over 11,000 students have been screened, while 400 teachers have received mental health training to better equip them in the classroom.

Family

Perhaps, Superintendent Bill Cleveland of Homewood summed it up best about the Bold Goals Mental Health Action Plans and Initiatives in our schools.

“In a true sense, we all want to establish a family in our schools, so we can get to that high level of learning.”

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United Way of Central Alabama

  • Longtime conservationist. Former Executive Director at the Alabama Environmental Council and Wild South. Publisher of the Bama Environmental News for more than 18 years. Career highlights include playing an active role in the creation of Alabama's Forever Wild program, Little River Canyon National Preserve, Dugger Mountain Wilderness, preservation of special places throughout the East through the Wilderness Society and the strengthening (making more stringent) the state of Alabama's cancer risk and mercury standards.