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On-site mental health services at schools showing promise
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East Hall Middle School Principal Kristin Finley watches as students hurry past her in the hall during a class change Thursday, Feb. 8, 2018. Finley is a strong supporter of addressing the mental health needs of her students and has a clinical professional counselor working on-site as part of the Georgia Apex Program. - photo by Scott Rogers

Principal Kristin Finley looks on as hundreds of students pour into the halls of East Hall Middle School during a class change.

But Finley has on her mind the few dozen students who are excelling thanks to the introduction of mental health services within the school.

“There is just such a need right now,” Finley said, adding that families can also benefit and participate in sessions.

Addressing the mental health needs of students has become a school mission, and no longer are the resources spread thin or across a wide geographic area. Instead, a clinical professional counselor now works on-site as part of the Georgia Apex Program.

The first recommendation made by the governor’s Commission on Children’s Mental Health, in a report released in December, calls for increased “access to behavioral health services for Georgia’s school-aged children by sustaining and expanding the Georgia Apex Program for school-based mental health.”

Learn more about this series

In December, the Commission on Children’s Mental Health, which was created by Gov. Nathan Deal in June, released a report with recommendations on how to improve mental health services for children in Georgia. Read more about that work and what the issues look like in our community.   

The idea is simple: To effect change, start early.

“A need exists for better coordination and collaboration among school systems, mental health providers and other community stakeholders,” the report states. “School-based mental health programs promote access to mental health services, increase early identification of mental health needs and provide coordinated interventions for children in need of behavioral health services.”

“Expanding the program would significantly increase access to critical behavioral health services for many children and families,” the report concludes.

Georgia Apex Program

What: Places clinical mental health counselors in schools

Where: Operates at Lyman Hall Elementary, Wauka Mountain Elementary, Mount Vernon Elementary, Lanier Elementary, South Hall Middle, East Hall Middle, North Hall Middle and North Hall High

The Apex program, spearheaded by Avita Community Partners, has now entered eight Hall County schools since being established three years ago. And at East Hall Middle, the results are positive.

Previous efforts to provide mental health counseling and resources in schools had failed in large part because the financial commitment was lacking.

“We just didn’t have the tools to do it the right way,” including people and resources, said Cathy Ganter, Avita’s chief operating officer. “It was not as successful as we would have liked.”

There were many reasons why this was the case, the biggest being barriers to access.

“It was difficult for a lot of our families to be able to provide the transportation, take off work … and most of the time if they did, the kids would not come to school that day at all,” Finley said.

Lost school days, parents missing work and the associated costs had negative consequences for students’ academic performance. And it also meant some students in need simply were not receiving necessary care.

But with an initial $330,000 in seed money, the Apex program launched and delivered a new start.

Avita moved into schools in its 13-county Northeast Georgia region.

“So this took away a lot of barriers to serving children and families,” Ganter said.

The Apex program mirrors efforts in school districts across the country to provide resources for students and families on-site, from clothing closets to food pantries.

In four of the Hall County schools, the counselors working with students are now operating self-sufficiently, having built up a client base that supports their salaries and benefits independent of state financing.

“That’s the whole goal I’ve had with this program,” Ganter said.  

At East Hall Middle, the counselor began with a caseload of about 30 students who were already receiving services through Avita. Now the counselor has more than 60 clients.

“We were able to reach more children who needed help,” Finley said.

Teachers responded well, typically first referring children for behavioral issues, who then could be assessed for other health issues such as mood or anxiety disorders.

Attendance has improved for children receiving services, grades are up, suspensions are down and other benefits are showing. The evidence is not just anecdotal, Ganter said.

“We’re getting the data to show that all of these things are improving,” she added.

There also has been a greater acceptance of mental health services and a better understanding of the afflictions some students have. In other words, the stigma so often associated with mental health is beginning to soften.

What began as a three-year pilot project will now likely be expanded.

“I look at this program as a blessing,” Ganter said.

The proposed state budget for the 2019 fiscal year includes about $4.3 million under the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities to sustain and grow the program.  

Challenges do remain, however. For example, the program is limited at the high school level in Hall County, with just North Hall High participating.

Scheduling at the high school level makes it harder to pull students out of classes for counseling sessions, Ganter said.

There also has been reticence from some corners.

“There’s been different levels of acceptance … in terms of how far they’ll let us go,” Ganter said.

But that’s not been the case at East Hall Middle.

“I’m not afraid of change,” Finley said. “We already have children using those services. Why not make it easier?”