Mental Health Awareness Month

Joint effort to address mental health concerns of students

Posted 5/12/19

Editor's note: This feature contains sensitive subject matter on topics such as depression, substance abuse, suicide and other topics.  School systems and organizations are coming together …

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Mental Health Awareness Month

Joint effort to address mental health concerns of students


Editor's note: This feature contains sensitive subject matter on topics such as depression, substance abuse, suicide and other topics.  

School systems and organizations are coming together to help Walker County youth battle mental health issues — one of the most epidemic developments our country is facing.

Ask any school personnel in Walker County if students are battling anxiety and depression, and you'll get an immediate affirmation. 

"It's not discriminatory. It's not necessarily a demographic thing. We see all races, genders, in dealing with mental health issues," Superintendent of Walker County Schools Dr. Joel Hagood said. "This is going on at Homewood, Vestavia Hills. ... It's something that we're facing as a county, as a state, and as a country."

In an interview with the Daily Mountain Eagle earlier this year, Sen. Greg Reed described meetings he had with educators where one of their number one concerns was addressing the mental health needs of students.

"To think of the growth in requirement of mental health and psychological issues that are affecting our children, even in elementary school, was something that was difficult for me to hear," Reed said.

Local educators and professionals in the mental health field have recognized a number of factors that are resulting in an increase of mental health concerns.

The pain of social media  

Educators have all agreed that social media is continuing to plague students and impact their overall well-being.

Curry Middle School counselor Misty Whisenhunt, who specializes in counseling education and mental health, said students have the ability to recognize how social media websites can be a breeding ground for bullies; yet, they simply can't seem to escape the pull of social media.

"Whenever they come in here about an issue, it's about something that was posted," Whisenhunt said. 

"There's a lot of bullying that goes on through social media, and it causes a lot of kids to suffer from depression and thinking of self-harm," Health Connect America-Jasper Program Director Karen Ozbirn said.

Ozbirn has been a therapist for seven years and works at the Health Connect office on Oak Hill Road in Jasper.

As a result of the depression that can come from social media use or other issues, Ozbirn said more youth, particularly middle school students, are cutting.

"Some of them want to feel something else that takes away the focus on the sadness or the anger or the depression, the hurt that they're feeling emotionally," Ozbirn said.

Along with social media comes bullying.

"Social media just compounds the issues that do exist," Hagood said. "Social media can be great, but it also can be of the devil in antagonizing kids and just exacerbating the issues that are already prevalent."

Drawing on over 10 years of counseling experience, Oakman High School counselor Dana Gray said school culture has changed over the years with the creation of social media.

"At 3 o'clock, you went home and you didn't have to deal with any of that," Gray said, "but these kids have to deal with it, and they deal with it all the time."

Walker County Sheriff's Office employees has been visiting schools this year to stress the importance of being cyber safe as a way to address growing social media concerns. 

Life at home

Drugs, poverty and a lack of family structure are all issues facing area youth.

"We're seeing it more and more where kids are parenting themselves," Superintendent of Jasper City Schools Dr. Ann Jackson said.

Hagood said family dynamics heavily come into play when considering the mental health of students. Both superintendents noted many kids are being raised by their grandparents, due to Walker County's growing drug problem.  

"In our country we're seeing that second generation of drug addicted families, and we're seeing their children," Jackson said.

Ozbirn said youth are also struggling with addiction.

"There's even children in the schools and adolescents that have had drug issues. Several have either attempted suicide by overdose or accidentally overdosed," Ozbirn said. "Children are suffering a lot these days." 

Other children lack supervision or simply have no authority figure as a confidant. 

Whisenhunt said she often feels like she is fighting a losing battle, because she will recommend therapy services for children that may be struggling, but sometimes doesn't get parental support.

"It's been a rough year," Whisenhunt said. "I don't think some children get the help that they need outside the school."

Gray said there is such a negative stigma surrounding mental health issues, and she's hoping that will change so everyone will be receptive to seek needed treatment.

"Having a mental health issue has always been shunned or people feel embarrassed that they have a mental health issue," she said. "They don't understand that having a mental health issue is not anymore shameful than having a medical condition. ... It's still something that you can address and get help with."

Educators say poverty is another saddening issue that causes mental health concerns with students. Over the course of this school year, educators have told the Daily Mountain Eagle that some students don't have a bed to sleep in at night. Others don't get rest and may not have clean clothes to wear or food to eat.

Many, if not all, Walker County and Jasper City schools have clothes closets students can utilize, and some schools send food home with students over the weekend.

"We have them captivated for a certain period of time, and most of these issues are developing off campus and they're bringing all that baggage with them," Hagood said. "The basic needs, if they're not met first, then learning is always going to be secondary."

Working together to heal 

Both Walker County and Jasper City schools are partnering with a number of local organizations to help students who are struggling with depression and other issues.

Youth Advocate Programs (YAP), Health Connect, Jasper Area Family Services Center (JAFSC) and the Walker County Children's Advocacy Center are all organizations that partner with the school systems to provide a number of services. Some organizations provide therapy at schools, some do home visits with students, and youth can also visit the organizations for one-on-one therapy.

Rita Pilling, director of accountability programs and support services for Jasper City Schools, spoke of how YAP has greatly benefited students in Jasper this year.

"We have had a great partnership with them this year. We've had a lot of student services," Pilling said. "They do counseling or referrals. They also go into the schools to check on students. They also can go into the home to provide services there. We feel like that has been a great benefit to our students to be able to refer them."

She also spoke of the many programs housed at JAFSC that can help students and parents get on a better path.

Jasper City Schools is also enrolled in the CrisisGo program. Should a dangerous situation arise, educators, parents and students all have access to the CrisisGo app, which can warn of a potential threat. 

"It is a very confidential tip line, but it can be a self referral, too, for students," Pilling said.

Jackson said behavioral assessment teams at each school have proven immensely beneficial.  

"If there's any concerns, this team gets together and they talk about what's going on with a particular child," Jackson said.

Parents are notified after such meetings if their child is determined to need any type of assistance. The school system also has a multi-needs team where schools can work together with mental health organizations to determine treatment options.

Like the city schools, Hagood said the the county system has problem solving teams at each school where plans can be crafted to help students in need.

When Hagood was principal years ago at Oakman High School, he says he implemented Project CARE (Community At-Risk Reduction Effort), which served to partner at-risk youth with adult mentors. 

Programs similar to Project CARE have been implemented and county schools, and Hagood said the school system is continually looking for ways to help students during tough times.

"We're working on a lot of different things, because this is an issue that's in our face. It's an immediate need, and I can only see it getting worse as time goes on," Hagood said.

Ozbirn said the number of students using Health Connect's services has greatly increased since the beginning of the year. In January, Ozbirn said they would receive one or two referrals each week, now anywhere from five to 10 students weekly are referred to Health Connect.   

"We've recently started growing and are getting more and more referrals from the schools, pediatrician offices and doctors offices," Ozbirn said.

Hagood and Jackson said it's their goal to continue looking for ways that the emotional needs of children can be addressed before it's too late.

"Our folks are working. They're recognizing it, and they're doing all they can," Hagood said. "They love their kids and want to see them excel and succeed."

Jackson said, "We can get better, and we want to get better, because we want our kids to be happy and healthy, physically and emotionally."

The following is a list of contact information for programs mentioned in this article that provide mental health services to families: Jasper Area Family Services Center, 205-302-0801; Health Connect America, 205-530-6007; Youth Advocate Programs, 205-388-1679; and the Walker County Children's Advocacy Center 205-387-8324. These programs are meant to be a starting point, as many organizations exist in Walker County to support children and adults.