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Mental health a focus for school system

On November 5, a cross-section of residents gathered at the Troy Recreation Center to discuss actions the community could take to benefit and improve educational opportunities in the city.

The meeting broke participants up into five different discussion tables to brainstorm actions that can enhance learning opportunities in five separate categories: workforce development, mental health and wellbeing, parental involvement, diversifying afterschool programs and capitalizing on existing assets and promoting communication.

One of the important factors that must be focused on in the education of children is their mental health and wellness.

A group of community leaders discussed what mental health resources are already available in the schools, what is available in the community and ways to better ensure the mental health and wellness of students.

Dr. Christie Armstrong, assistant superintendent, discussed the many ways in which the school system is already providing mental health services in the schools.

“We have a confluence of services already provided to students,” Armstrong said. “We are Currently partnering with East Central Mental Health. Students have to be clients of ECMH to receive services, but we have school counselors and nurses talk with parents to see if students are clients and identify students that might need care. We also offer in-school counseling and in-home services if within the student’s plan.”

The schools also contract with Solstice of Dothan to provide a licensed professional counselor to conduct counseling sessions with students and intensive one-one-one services when needed.

The system also has partnership with Glenwood Autism and Behavioral Center of Birmingham to conduct training and consultation to teachers. They also provide behavioral strategies to parents and staff and provide individualized recommendations.

The Learning Tree of Tallassee evaluates students for behavioral intervention in addition to training teachers, and ABA Associates of Troy provides autism training to teachers and aides and behavioral analysis therapy to students in school and clinical settings.

“From our meeting, we discussed ways to increase parents’ knowledge of these services,” Armstrong said. “Mental health needs are not going away. It’s something we have to continue to address and educate parents on mental health. Our teachers do a great job of identifying students who have needs to make referrals to special education to contact administrators for further assistance.”

Jonathan Cellon, board of education member, said much of the initial meeting on Nov. 5 was learning about all these avenues that are already in place.

“It was a discovery of a lot we didn’t know; what community resources were available and how those things work together,” Cellon said. “I think the school system is doing as much as it can with the resources that it has. What we want to do is continue to take partnerships and strategic decision making around the next steps in terms of services and coordination.”

One of the key issues for the group is taking that knowledge and making it accessible for all parents.

Dr. Elizabeth Dawson, pediatrician at the Charles Henderson Child Health Care Center and founder of the Troy Resilience Project, said the group is working to create a comprehensive but accessible resource guide and looking to find ways to make that information not just available, but communicated directly to parents.

“ECMH has counselors in school every day dealing with students with behavioral health needs and different contractors are available depending on a specific child’s needs,” Dawson said. “We’re looking to see what other partnerships could be beneficial.”

Dawson said mental health issues have classically been related to adolescents, but they actually begin even earlier.

“Even at the preschool level, there can be stress in the household from not knowing where the next meal is going to come from, abuse or neglect, parental arguing,” Dawson said. “That stress looks different in younger kids versus older kids. A younger kid may be distracted or may show out of control anger. As a pediatrician, there’s always something behind a child’s behavior. How do we help them overcome whatever they’re bringing to school?”

Armstrong said there are exciting possibilities before the system now in addition to the services already provided.

“We’re ecstatic about the possibility of our system joining the school-based mental health collaboration with Alabama State Department of Education. That’s where they will provide possibly a mental health counselor to be staffed at our schools to provide mental health services. We are working toward that possibility.”

Armstrong said a meeting must be held first with a representative from the state department to lay out all the requirements of joining the collaboration, including funding.

“Joining this would allow the state to track mental health services so they can provide data to legislators to promote possible mental health funding to the students,” Armstrong said.

Cellon said the Cradle to Career group is identifying leaders from that original meeting to continue having conversations to spreading awareness and furthering the mental health and wellbeing of students.

“Schools are a central conduit throughout the community, but there are a lot of touchpoints out there,” Cellon said. “We are assessing those touchpoints and building awareness. Really any individual or organization that touches the life of a young person is important, be that church, a sports team, an art initiative – all those things are important. Relationships and having at least one person in a young person’s life can really make a difference. How do we foster that as broadly as possible? We have to change conversations at the coffee shop, at the dinner table. This information has to be shared in a natural way.”

“Those groups, that’s where you get the resilience,” Dawson said. “If a student has just one reliable person in their life, they can overcome tremendous adversity. It’s not about getting everybody to counseling, but getting a therapeutic web of positive people from school to church. It’s all critical to helping all kids do better.”

Armstrong said the school system is ready to work alongside the community to help continue to strengthen the mental health network for students.

“We’re excited about working with the community on making sure we continue to provide quality mental health services to students,” Armstrong said. “This is a priority of (Dr. Lee Hicks, superintendent).. He understands how important this is.”