3 On Your Side Special Report: Mental Health in Schools

Published: Apr. 20, 2023 at 5:59 PM CDT
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - It is not just reading, writing, and arithmetic that your children are tasked with trying to understand.

As the mental health crisis grows across our country, many children are also struggling to understand how to deal with their feelings and emotions. Now schools are also working to help your children with their mental health.

Brianna Murphy and Josephine Nations are 11th graders at Puckett High School, and they say it is not easy being a teenager in today’s society.

“Even though we do have a lot going for us, there’s still things we struggle with,” said Murphy.

In fact, they say you would be surprised about the pressure students face and the temptations put in their face including something we are all familiar with - social media.

Josephine Nations: “I would say with social media your body image or maybe you think you can’t be good as somebody else because you see what somebody has.”

When the school bell rings for your child, they are met with even more challenges.

“Not just me personally, but a lot of people are worried about getting judged in school and not being popular and not having friends,” said Nations.

Puckett High Teacher and Coach Chase Courtney is not shocked. He says being on the frontlines of education, he worries about the mental stability of today’s generation.

“We seem lost in society right now in a lot of ways, and it is trickling down to teens and our youth are really hurting,” he said.

Mental health is defined as your emotional, psychological, and social well-being.

Mental illness refers to conditions that affect a person’s thinking, feeling, mood, or behavior. This includes a range of conditions from anxiety to bipolar disorder just to name a few.

“They are not the same as having a broken leg, it is not nearly as easily to see as a broken arm, but there is some part of our body that is not working correctly at that time,” said Sean Brewer, director of Education Solutions with Canopy Children’s Solutions.

Canopy is a Mississippi nonprofit providing behavioral health, educational, and social service solutions.

Brewer, who used to work as a principal in the state, says mental health issues were not always talked about.

“Many of our mental health challenges were pushed under the surface, or in the shadow. I’ve heard of this being described that way by therapists before that it was out of sight out of mind.”

The teachers and health professionals I spoke with say they are seeing more and more students who are struggling with mental health problems, and they are carrying their troubles from home to the classroom.

In turn, many schools are left struggling to support students’ educational and mental needs.

Sean Brewer: “Schools are not a mental health care provider, and I don’t think they want to be, but they certainly want to partner with someone who can’t help on that front because they are seeing those issues in the classroom and the hallways.”

Let’s start with Canopy Solutions.

Thanks to a grant from the Mississippi Department of Mental Health they have partnered with Madison County Schools to address issues you as parents and your children may face every day through a digital solution.

Sean Brewer, director of education with Canopy Children's Solutions.
Sean Brewer, director of education with Canopy Children's Solutions.(WLBT)

“Yes, because that’s where kids live right on their phones all the time,” Canopy Chief Solutions Officer Shea Hutchins said.

Hutchins says they have created an app called Canopy Anywhere.

It allows students to download and take mental health surveys throughout the year -- so experts can give resources and help effectively.

“Then we deploy your team from our link solution to meet with the family and help them get their needs met, while our mental health therapist is in the school to work with the kids who are flagged, or who might need some extra attention from a counseling standpoint,” said Hutchins.

That assistance to combat this nationwide mental health crisis is welcomed by Madison County Schools.

“When you look at mental health a lot of times it is the stigma that comes with it,” said Student Services Director Stephanie Permenter.

“Obviously, the goal is to continue to try to improve children’s mental health in any way that we can. If that means having more professionals available to them, I certainly hope that will get us closer to a solution,” Madison Schools Counselor Shelby Reynolds said.

Wendy Bailey agrees.

She is the executive director of the Department of Mental Health here the Mississippi.

“Right now, in Mississippi, about 28 percent of children and adolescents are experiencing some kind of social or emotional condition. Nationally, it’s about 21 percent. Mississippi had a little bit higher than the national, “said Bailey.

If you think that is disturbing, here are some more staggering statistics:

According to the CDC, about 1 in 7 U.S. children aged 2-8 years have a mental, behavioral, and/or developmental disorder reported by a parent. Also, 8.4 percent of children aged 6 to 17 have been diagnosed with anxiety and/or depression.

“It saddens me. It absolutely breaks my heart,” Bailey said.

Then there is Amerigroup Mississippi that is also raising its hand to be a community partner.

The health insurance and managed health care provider is working with EVERFI to improve mental health wellness and health literacy for nearly 8 thousand students in 78 schools across the state.

“It’s intervening early and making sure our kids and I don’t mean physically well, but mentally well,” said Tara Clark, president of Amerigroup Mississippi.

Here is how it works: Students are given a special curriculum that focuses on building, maintaining, and promoting positive mental health.

Puckett High is participating in the free program.

“The students are tested before they take the course and then they take the course, and they test again to see the impact of the curriculum,” Clark explained.

Clark says the program is paying off across the state.

“What we have seen is a 77 percent increase in students’ abilities appropriately handle a mental health crisis with themselves or with someone that they know.”

These schools and organizations say forging meaningful and effective partnerships with a goal of meeting kids where they are is a great start. It is a possible solution they hope other schools around the country will consider to help combat the mental health crisis

“You never want to see suicide. If you can give these kids some tools early on, it can make the difference between life and death,” Coach Courtney said.

Experts say if your teenager is dealing with anxiety, depression or any other mental health concerns don’t be afraid to talk to them, be open and also provide a listening ear. Also, don’t be afraid to talk to a counselor or doctor because they can be trusted sources to help your child through difficult times.

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