A top priority for the Hall County school district can be expressed in two words: mental health.
On Monday, Aug. 2, the district hosted its annual convocation at Free Chapel. For nearly three hours, district leaders led a mental health training session for some 3,500 employees.
Mental health is a broad term that refers to the well-being of students. It’s so important, Superintendent Will Schofield said, because “it’s foundational,” underlying and preceding all other measures of student success.
Mental health has been cited by school officials as the primary reason for not requiring masks this year. He said the pandemic has created “schools that don’t look much like schools anymore.” Instead, they resemble “mini penal colonies,” he said.
Tamara Etterling, director of student services, said roughly 40% of students suffer from some sort of anxiety disorder, according to student wellness surveys. And anxiety, she added, is often merely the first link in a chain of mental health issues, one that sometimes leads to depression and even self-harm.
Mental health issues “have absolutely exploded even beyond where we were before the pandemic,” Schofield said. During a three-month span in 2020, the district saw as many mental health requests among students as it had typically seen in a whole year, he added.
“It really brings tears to your eyes, that now the average age of onset for an anxiety disorder is 5, 6 years old,” Schofield said. “So we've got kindergartners that are worried about the uncertainty of their time, the uncertainty in their own households, what they're seeing and hearing on television, and so it just breaks your heart. So all we've done is continue to stay the course.”
About three years ago, the district formulated a more robust and aggressive approach to mental health, Etterling said, one that was compelled by an alarming and ever-growing increase in student mental health episodes. Out of those meetings came a new three-tiered approach.
The first tier accounts for all students, Etterling said, and aims to raise awareness of mental health issues on a campus-wide level in schools, preparing teachers for spotting behaviors in children that may be cause for concern. At the second tier, students are paired with on-campus counselors to get the help they need, representing 20% of students. The third and final tier accounts for 3-5% of students, who are paired with health agencies off campus, those who may be suicidal or engaged in self-harm.
In Oct. 2020, the district received $2 million in federal funding through Project Aware, which allowed the district to hire three mental health professionals who guide and coordinate services across the district.
For the budget this year, the district will use much of the $21 million it received in CARES funding to bolster current initiatives and create new ones. For example, a pilot program will soon be tested in two schools, Friendship Elementary and White Sulphur Elementary, in which counselors will aim to spot intrinsic behaviors that may indicate problems which do not always readily rise to the surface.
Etterling is “very hopeful” that 2021 will prove a momentous year for the district in its efforts at improving the well-being of its students and further lay the groundwork for tackling its utmost priority.