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Mental Health Services Key for Georgia’s Schoolchildren

Should mental health care in schools be as accessible as school lunches?

That’s the vision of The Carter Center, which in partnership with Voices for Georgia’s Children and Georgia Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, convened a series of forums and virtual meetings around Georgia to promote best practices in school-based behavioral health and eliminate policy barriers. The goal is for school-based behavioral health to be developed, sustained, and as common as school lunch programs in Georgia.

The stakes are high. “Almost 20% of children and adolescents in Georgia have a diagnosed mental health disorder,” said Dr. Eve Byrd, director of the Carter Center’s Mental Health Program. “And with the added and ongoing trauma on children due to the COVID-19 pandemic and racial injustice, children are at greater risk.”

  • In Albany, Georgia, former First Lady Rosalynn Carter (center) is flanked by speakers and event organizers at a forum on school-based mental health convened by The Carter Center, Georgia Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, and Voices for Georgia’s Children.

The daylong forums attracted educators, parents, policy leaders, behavioral health experts, mental health providers, and law enforcement. The events took place in the Georgia cities of Atlanta, Albany, and Dublin along with a statewide virtual town hall over the past year.

In a moving presentation at the forum held at Dublin High School in February, one student spoke about his emotional struggles and failing grades after a deterioration in his home life. He said that after talking to a mental health clinician provided by the school in collaboration with its local mental health services provider, his anxiety went down, and his grades went up.

In general, students are becoming more open about their mental health and asking social workers and counselors to see mental health professionals, according to Kelly Canady, a social worker in Dublin City Schools. As part of a state-sponsored program called Georgia Apex that provides grants to schools to increase services, Canady can provide students with access to mental health providers and arrange appointments.

School-based behavioral health (mental health and substance misuse) includes changing the school culture to be trauma-informed and nurturing in order to not further traumatize or discriminate against a child needing support, recognize children and families who are at risk, and provide specialists on site. It’s a “win-win situation” for everyone “to provide school-based mental health services so that students can stay in school rather than missing it to go to appointments off campus,” he said.

School personnel benefit directly from school-based services. “It alleviates a lot of the anxiety that teachers and school personnel have on how to best approach what the students need,” Canady said.

  • Connie Smith, local coordinator of a Georgia program to provide school-based behavioral health services, speaks about her experience at a forum in Dublin, Georgia.

Although the school year has been disrupted by COVID-19, Byrd said she expects the momentum gained during the three forums to continue. The Carter Center and its partners are working with Georgia’s Department of Education, Georgia Department of Behavioral Health, Department of Community Health, Georgia Parent Support Network, private philanthropy groups, and other stakeholders to assist schools and mental health providers in advancing mental health care for students and families. Schools can be the nexus for addressing the health of students and their families, and when they are, the educational system is more successful in its mission to educate children.

“There is more interest than ever from a variety of community members who want to prevent behavioral health disorders and promote mental health and well-being in children through schoolbased programming,” said Byrd. “We are fortunate that in Georgia, every effort was made by Georgia Apex and its partners not to disrupt the provision of school-based behavioral health services during the COVID-19 school closures. And we will continue to advance school-based behavioral health until 100% of Georgia’s children’s behavioral health needs are met.”

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