One in six American children ages 6-17 experiences a mental health disorder each year, according to the National Association on Mental Illness. While mental health concerns about kids during the pandemic are not unusual for families, Texas school districts have a variety of programs to address the issues.
According to experts in Texas, the stresses of starting the school year this year are different, and more kids are feeling anxiety and emotional stress. There’s also grief and stressors perhaps because of a death in their family due to the pandemic.
In 2019, Gov. Greg Abbott signed the House Bill 18, which was meant to provide more mental health and suicide prevention services to students in Texas public schools.
Schools are relying on staffers and faculty members communicating with students through morning meetings and small groups to access their mental health. RA News reported on the ways teachers and administrators watch students for any concerns via virtual learning.
Advocates want more mental health professionals in schools this year.
Clay Robison, spokesperson for the Texas State Teachers Association, hopes more mental health professionals have been hired in public schools this year.
“I hope it is an increase over previous years because Texas, as a state, does a poor job meeting the mental needs of its students,” he wrote in an email on Friday. “Those needs are great in a “normal” year and most likely are even greater during this health crisis.”
Rural schools and smaller school districts may face problems fulfilling the mental health needs of students, but the same problem is also a concern for larger districts with more demand and more kids to serve.
The lack of mental health providers in schools in Texas means many kids never see one.
“According to figures from the Texas Education Agency for the 2018-19 school year, nearly 7,000 Texas students ‘shared’ a social worker, and nearly 3,000 ‘shared’ a psychologist. That means most of the kids who needed a mental health professional never saw one,” wrote Robison.
“The American School Counselor Association recommends a ratio of 250 students to one counselor,” wrote Robison, “but the ratio in Texas is nearly double that. To make matters worse, many counselors are pulled from their critical work to help with other issues.”
The Dallas Independent School District announced during the summer that it would be amping up mental health staffing. The district announced administrators are hiring 57 additional staff members to meet the demand for mental health treatment in schools.
Dallas ISD approved a plan for mental health expansion this past spring, right before COVID-19 arrived in the community. Dallas ISD’s Mental Health Services Executive Director Dianna Smoot said the timing couldn’t have been better.
“We know that our communities, both students and adults alike, are adjusting to a new normal and new challenges as a result of COVID-19. The MHS team’s services offer the opportunity to improve coping skills, thereby positively impacting the emotional health and wellbeing of our students and families.”
At Dallas ISD, the Mental Health Services Department works as one unit, which means the Mental Health Services Department combines with the Youth and Family Centers and Psychological and Social Services programs.
The Dallas ISD’s Mental Health Services Department offers a range of intervention and treatment services to support the emotional health and wellbeing of students, including behavior intervention and support, training for campus professionals, crisis intervention support, as well as ongoing individual, family, and group therapy services.
Smoot breaks down how the programs within MHS work together.
In the district, 150 professionals are in the Mental Health Services Department, including both campus and clinic-based licensed mental health clinicians, psychiatrists, and support staff.
The district’s Social and Emotional Learning Department focuses on integrating social and emotional skill development into areas of core content instruction.
SEL Executive Director Juana Valdespino-Gaytan says this summer all administrators and teachers were required to participate in a professional learning session on Social and Emotional Learning and Trauma Informed Care Practices, and the feedback was overwhelmingly positive that this training was exactly what the staff needed training on.
“These skills include building resilience, controlling emotions, and maintaining healthy relationships,” explained Smoot.
“The Counseling Department ensures staff members are trauma-informed so they can not only be responsive to the needs of our students but also recognize and identify when additional supports are needed and make the appropriate referrals for care,” she wrote.
Finally, Mental Health Services offers a continuum of support that includes individual and group counseling, ongoing individual and family therapy, and crisis intervention.
Smoot wrote that even though the school year looks different, the range of support will be there, and much like the services the district offers that are face to face, their team aims to provide high-quality services that respect the confidentiality of their clients, even in the virtual space.
Other districts such as Alvin and Pearland have been preparing to continue offering mental health resources this school year.
Austin ISD has 230 professional school counselors, and every school has one or more professional school counselors who offer a range of support services. Amid the pandemic, the district launched the Social and Emotional Learning At-Home website, which is intended to provide parents, caregivers and students access to enrichment activities, resources for self-care and mindfulness practices.
Conroe ISD has 158 counselors, but Denise Cipolla, CISD coordinator for guidance and counseling, told the Houston Chronicle that they do not feel they have enough on hand and while the services haven’t changed, the demand has increased. Cipolla said moving some services to online guidance has worked, and outcomes have been positive.
San Antonio ISD didn’t respond immediately to an email asking about the numbers of counselors at schools this year.
“As Texas responds to the COVID-19 pandemic, the threat of contracting the virus may produce anxiety, stress, and other biopsychological responses,” Elliott Sprehe, a spokesman for the Texas Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC), said in an email.
“We’ve also compiled helpful resources for people receiving services specific to COVID-19 and Texans may also dial 2-1-1, which connects people with the resources they need across Texas,” Sprehe added.
If you need mental health services, you may want to look at the TEA’s mental health resource page to find services in your area.