Pictured are Mary Heather Gibbs (school counselor), Shante Stutts (school counselor), Karen Garey (School Based Mental Health Therapist), Miranda Roberts (school counselor), and Tammara Pinkney (school counselor) at Southaven Middle School.
courtesy DeSoto County Schools
Christina McCafferty is the school based Mental Health Therapist at Hernando High School.
DeSoto County Schools took time to recognize Children’s Mental Health Awareness Week May 1-7 to raise awareness of the role schools play in supporting the well-being of children, and to highlight the district’s mental health department which is helping to improve mental wellness and academic outcomes for school children who may be struggling and need counseling.
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, about 15 million children or 1 in 5 children ages 3 through 17 have a diagnosable mental, emotional or behavioral disorder in a given year.
Tajuana Williams, DeSoto County Schools director of mental health, said the district started offering mental health services in 2018 before the COVID-19 pandemic and now has 12 school-based mental health therapists to help students address any issues surrounding their mental health.
“Our district has been really forward thinking when it comes to addressing the mental well being of our students,” Williams said. “We know that when kids are mentally healthy, they are able to function at their highest in the school and community.”
Williams said schools were already seeing an increase in anxiety and depression cases, and students dealing with everything from pressure to keep their grades up, balancing a full schedule of extracurricular activities, troubles with friends or boyfriends and girlfriends, and issues at home.
Then, the COVID-19 pandemic brought out a whole new set of challenges that affected children’s mental well being, which fortunately the district’s schools were prepared to meet.
Williams said said children who were used to going to school every day were suddenly forced to stay home and learn virtually and couldn’t be around their friends. Sports and other extracurricular activities were also cancelled or limited.
“A lot of it has been an increase in anxiety,” Williams said. “I think we saw more of that with the pandemic. A lot of things changed for them. Their social structures were limited and access to social engagement was limited. They missed out on the day-to-day interactions and weren’t able to get that social development normally.”
Williams said counselors also saw an increase in depression where students were dealing with the loss of a loved one from COVID or a change in their family’s financial situation due to the pandemic.
“Grief and loss became something we really focused on,” Williams said. “When we came back, there was a lot of grief and loss. A lot to the dynamics in their families had changed. They might have lost a grandparent or it could be the stability at home changed.”
Williams said schools are primarily built to focus on the academic growth of students, but a lot of times students bring issues from home that are then transferred to the school setting. Having mental health counselors in the schools to address those issues has helped the district educate the whole child, which is important because it teaches students to be aware of their feelings and to communicate when they need more help.
“What we have been able to do is establish a support system for our students,” Williams said. “We all know that our schools are a microcosm of our community. A lot of times we see things transferred to our school setting. So we are helping them to build things like resiliency skills and coping skills. Those are things we are able to offer support to.”
Williams said counselors meet with teachers and staff at the beginning of the year to make them aware that mental health services are available to students in need.
About 800 students this year have received in-school counseling services or have been referred to outside mental health partners.
“When a student is sent to the counseling office or if a student visits the office and they are having issues that are related to their mental to emotional state, they talk to the counselor about it,” Williams said. “We talk to them about the resources we have. The counselor in turns contacts the parents and lets them know about the resources we have. If they want to access those resources, we send them home an informed consent which they sign and then we provide the service.”
The school counselor then determines what the educational barrier is and determines goals the student should work on.
“It could be emotional regulation. It could be anger. It could be depression. It could be suicidal thoughts or an inability to express themselves,” Williams said. “Those are all issues that could be impairing them and impacting how they perform during the day.”
Any referrals are done through the school’s Mental Health Department. DeSoto County Schools partners with Region IV Mental Health Services, Health Connect, and University of Mississippi’s Clinic for Outreach and Personal Enrichment (COPE).
“Some of our students still have an outside therapist, but we work with those therapists on whatever they are doing outside to help them continue the care inside the school to be able to elaborate on those issues,” Williams said. “We are serving well over 2,000 students throughout the year.”
Williams said administrators, teachers, school staff, coaches, and even students can refer a child to the school mental health counselor.
“We encourage students all the time that if they know something, say something,” Williams said. “The biggest thing is that they can, without judgement, let their peers know that there are people in the building who can help them with whatever they are dealing with.”
Williams encourages parents to pay attention to warning signs in their children such as a sudden change in behavior or moods that could be a red flag that they are struggling with mental health issues.
“Parents know their children better than any of us,” Williams said. “Any time there is a change in their normal behavior, mood pattern, frustrations, irritability, changes in some of their friendships or groups of people they are around, a decrease in things they are interested in, or isolation, I think it is always a good thing to ask.”