DEKALB COUNTY, Ga. — As school districts are preparing for the upcoming school year, President Joe Biden is working to put more mental health resources in schools. Mental health is also top of mind for many school administrators.
Dr. Vasanne Tinsley is getting ready to start her first full school year as Interim Superintendent of DeKalb County Schools. She expects to find thousands of students and staff trying to overcome struggles experienced during the summer and an eventful two years of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We have to address the things that have happened with our students," Tinsley said. "Talk about anxiety, talk about the time they were away from friends and peers.”
A renewed focus on mental health has defined 2022 in Georgia. Gov. Brian Kemp signed the Mental Health Parity Act in April. The law, now in effect, eases access to mental health care in Georgia. The state also devoted millions to mental health care in the latest budget. Now, more funding at the federal level could bring much-needed resources into the classroom.
The Biden administration announced Friday that it would allocate $300 million through the U.S. Department of Education to expand mental health access in schools. As part of the funding, $140 million will go to develop a pipeline for mental health professionals and school-focused training. Another $140 will go to increase the number of mental health providers in schools.
"This funding opportunity is going to help school districts with extra resources and training, just identification for staff members to be able to key into those things students may be exhibiting but not able to express," Tinsley said. "This is something we need to place intense focus on in our society as a whole, and I’m appreciative of the funding that will be released that will allow us to do that.”
Georgia's school-based mental health program, APEX, works with more than 700 schools statewide. Half of those schools are in rural areas. Led by the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Development Disabilities, the program partners with the state Department of Education, local school systems, private providers and communities to provide critical mental health services to youth. The state has budgeted $5.6 million to APEX, and several schools will get mental health services for the first time this year.
Tinsley said the current attention on mental health has paved a path for better infrastructure surrounding key services, especially for young people who have possibly experienced the loss of a family member, economic hardship and a long period of time separated from friends and teachers in person.
"Students have shared the struggles they had with anxiety, depression, loneliness, and the group of students who graduated last year, that was the group whose schooling was stopped abruptly because of the pandemic,” Tinsley said. "We have to be there for our students and families, because we know if they don’t have that support, it’s going to be difficult for them to pay attention and listen to what a teacher is saying for eight hours a day and learn.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that more than 40 percent of teens reported struggling with persistent feelings of sadness and hopelessness. The American Psychiatric Association reported more than half of parents and caregivers had concern over their child's wellbeing.
In response, Georgia is partnering with school districts and organizations like Resilient Georgia to alert schools and daycare centers if a child has trauma and provide trauma-informed care training for school staff.
"In the end, I want to see well-rounded students," Tinsley said. "I want to see staff have sensitivity to the needs of our community. I want to see healthier staff members."