For more than 10 years, Florence City Schools has had on site professional mental health counselors from Riverbend Center for Mental Health.

“Schools have become a place where it’s required that we provide wraparound services,” Superintendent Jimmy Shaw said. “Our students come to us with multiple needs. This is one of the ways we provide services to our students.”

Across Alabama, school leaders say more mental health care is needed.

Hartselle City Schools Superintendent Dee Dee Jones said her system is seeing more mental health issues in students, including depression.

“Students are coming in younger and younger with emotional needs,” Jones said. “And they’re severe emotional needs, for the most part. Families are asking for help.”

So, Jones is grateful to have a full-time mental health clinician from Mental Health Center of North Central Alabama available to her students.

Having the master’s degree-level counselor available to students and parents on school grounds and after hours has been hugely helpful for families, Jones said.

The School-Based Mental Health Services, a collaboration between the Alabama State Department of Education and the Alabama Department of Mental Health, has existed since 2013. Some systems have used grants or local money to pay their share of the cost.

Hartselle was able to join the collaboration in 2018, when lawmakers put $500,000 in state money toward the program. For the budget year that began this month, that amount was doubled to $1 million.

Senate education budget committee chairman Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, said more money could be allocated in the 2021 budget.

“I would anticipate doubling or tripling this funding, assuming current revenue projections are accurate, because of the reported positive impact coming in from the participating school districts,” Orr said.

According to ADMH, students are six times more likely to complete mental health treatment in schools than in community settings.

“The school-based mental health collaborative program offers another means to provide mental health services to children in a timely way and in a convenient location for the youth and family,” said Gayla Cadell, ADMH’s coordinator of Child and Adolescent Services. “It also allows for the ongoing collaboration of mental health authorities and staff at local schools to help identify the needs of the child and work together as a team to meet those needs.”

As of July, 60 of the state’s 137 school systems were participating in the program, nine of them using state funding, to get clinicians from 16 community mental health centers.

Bryan Libell, director of Riverbend, said the program that started in Florence years ago is now a model for other schools. Riverbend counselors are in all eight school systems in the three counties it serves.

Libell and Shaw both said the demand for mental health services has increased in part because the recognition of needs has improved.

“Thirty years ago, we weren’t asking these questions (about students’ mental health),” Shaw said. “We just called the parents and said, ‘Johnny is having a bad day’ or ‘Susie is crying.’”

Libell also said students are dealing with more, including sometimes unstable home and family environments and parents’ drug abuse.

“If (students are) focused on what’s going on at home, or what they’re going through, they can’t focus on what’s going on in the classroom,” Jones said.

Traditional school counselors aren’t trained to deal with students’ more severe needs.

The program was created following the December 2012 school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut. Through March 2019, 12,479 students have received services through it, according to ADMH.

Diagnoses have included: adjustment disorder, anxiety disorder, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, bipolar disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, impulse control disorder, major depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and schizophrenia.

Russellville City Schools Superintendent Heath Grimes said the mental health needs in schools are incredible right now.

“We’ve had suicides here,” he said. “Our biggest issue is being prepared to prevent suicide,” Grimes said.

His system has been part of school-based services since 2017. He said the on-site counselor from Riverbend removes roadblocks from getting students the help they need, including a parent not being able to take off work to get their child to appointments and cost concerns. Transportation can also be a barrier.

“It was a need that was going unmet,” Grimes said.

The providers can bill families’ Medicaid or private insurance for services. Some students’ insurance won’t cover the school-based services. In those cases, Shaw says the school pays.

“It’s worth the cost to us to have that.” Shaw said.

A 2016 law requires public school personnel receive annual training in suicide awareness and prevention and school system to adopt a policy on student suicide prevention.

Late last month, Vic Wilson, executive director of Council for Leaders in Alabama Schools, sent a survey to his members asking about the biggest issues facing their schools. In preliminary responses, Wilson said the No. 1 concern was a shortage of teachers. The second was the mental health needs of students.

“Mental health has gone from something that people mention to No. 2,” Wilson said.

He said schools need more funding and programs to meet students’ needs.

“Anything we can do with mental health and education seems like a move in the right direction to address the concerns of our members,” Wilson said.

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