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 Jr. 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.

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 is incredible right now.

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