Mental health services in schools improving, more help needed

Mental health services in schools improving, more help needed

By CAROLINE BECK Alabama Daily News

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – Mental health support in Alabama schools has improved since the Alabama Legislatures appropriated $4.5 million toward the effort last year, but state leaders say more help is needed.

Education and mental health leaders held a joint press conference in the State House Wednesday announcing a renewed push for more funding from the Legislature. 

“I think we have made major impacts, particularly under the situation right now with COVID, but I think there is still a dire need for services, collaboratives, as well as tools for these people to have,” Kay Warfield, the Alabama State Department of Education’s education administrator said.  

With money appropriated in the fiscal year 2021 budget, ALSDE was able to fund 102 mental health coordinators across the state. The coordinators help facilitate mental health services within their district to best help the student, teacher or family that is in need.

The initiative is in collaboration with the Alabama Department of Mental Health and is part of a three-tier system that provides help for students, families or teachers facing varying levels of mental health crises.

State Superintendent Eric Mackey is asking the Legislature for a $2 million increase in its 2022 budget request specifically to provide for more mental health coordinators in schools. Mackey said he hopes the increased funding can provide at least one mental health coordinator for all of Alabama’s more than 140 school systems.

Mackey said there has been a struggle to find enough mental health professionals to service communities, just as there has been a public school teacher shortage in the state.

“There may be gaps sometimes because people retire, or they move on, or they go into private practice and they’ve got to fill that space,” Mackey said. “So I would say that continues to be a struggle, to get the right personnel to meet the needs out there for therapists.”

The 102 mental health coordinators are not licensed therapists but are meant to serve as a link to resources in the community and in the state that schools can utilize to help with whatever mental health issues arise.

Some of the coordinators from around the state joined Mackey and Commissioner of Mental Health Kim Boswell at the State House to explain the importance of their roles.

“A lot of the time students can fall through the cracks, and we want to be a part of the net that would catch those students who would otherwise fall through the cracks,” said Kayla Magbie, a mental health coordinator for Fort Payne City schools.

Laura Bruce, a mental health coordinator at Ozark City Schools, said during her short time serving her system, she has encountered students talking about attempting suicide and student drug use.

“By collaborating together with other external resources, we were able to give the right interventions at the right time for these students,” Bruce said.

Letricia Ogutu, a mental health coordinator from Huntsville City Schools, said the services they provide are also for educators who are also facing an incredibly hard school year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“With many of the events taking place in 2020, not only have they been coping with the stress of having to be the best possible educators to our students but also managing themselves as well,” Ogutu said.

Boswell said her department supports the development of multi-tier services as part of its School-Based Mental Health Collaboration.

“With 50% of mental illness beginning by age 14, and 75% by age 24, comprehensive school-based mental health services are critical to prevention and early intervention with students,” Boswell said. 

The Legislature has put a concerted effort behind funding more mental health initiatives in the state, including $18 million for three new mental health crisis centers that are expected to begin services this year.   

Rep. Nathaniel Ledbetter, R-Rainsville, who has been a main champion of those efforts said the progress in just the last year is remarkable. 

“It’s hard to believe that just over a year ago, we got together, Republicans and Democrats, to talk about what needed to happened to improve mental health in this state,” he said. 

“I met with the governor personally and had to deliver the truth that we were failing miserably in mental health in this state. Thanks to the work that is being done, I believe I can report back to Gov. Ivey that is no longer the case.

“We are no longer failing miserably. We’ve begun the change, and there is more work to do.”