Leave it to Mother Nature to literally rain on our parade, but don’t worry – the tornado warnings didn’t stop us. We are on a mission to improve the lives of all of Georgia’s children.

Voices, along with our partners The Carter Center and Georgia Appleseed, convened a group of therapists, social workers, school administrators, and advocates in Dublin for a forum on school-based behavioral health programs. A small group of us kicked off the day at Southwest Laurens Elementary School, a charming building guarded by – even more charmingly — a tribe of goats!

At Laurens Elementary, we met with the therapist who works in the school a few days a week, thanks to support from the Georgia Apex Program. She meets with students in a classroom, a familiar setting, so they feel comfortable. The principal says having a therapist on site has changed the way they approach discipline. She acts as the first line of intervention – rather than giving a student a citation or taking other disciplinary measures, the school therapist is able to meet the student and diffuse the situation.

The forum featured school superintendents from Middle Georgia talking about how school-based behavioral health programs have changed their schools for the better:

  • Attendance rates have improved
  • School climate is better
  • Suspension rates are down, and,
  • Students feel more supported.

Taking a whole child approach – or looking at the varying needs of a child rather than one isolated one — has spread to teachers too. Superintendents discussed the importance and positive impact of supporting their teachers through a holistic approach, given that teachers have needs and life events that affect their ability to serve students in the classroom too. One teacher shared how supporting a student who has experienced trauma can result in second-hand trauma for teachers – another reminder that supporting teachers, even just by recognizing this sacrifice, is critical.

Mental health providers shared tips on methods they’ve identified to overcome obstacles to service provision. Unfortunately, in many communities across the state, there is significant stigma associated with having mental health needs. One of the panelists pointed out how powerful it can be, in these situations, for a parent to hear first-hand accounts from other parents of how mental health services have helped their child. These parents are Certified Peer Specialists, and they use their lived experiences to help build environments that foster healing and recovery – that is, they work to counteract the stigma that can get in the way of such healing.

While hearing from the experts and those implementing changes in our schools is crucial, it is important that we not overlook the youth. One courageous 13-year-old boy shared his own mental health struggle — exacerbated by major loss in his family and righteous grief – and his journey of how he reached a more peaceful, more hopeful place due to the support he received at school. His story brought everyone to their feet afterward, and many to tears. It’s difficult to think about where this child might be had he not been given that support that we all so desperately need in such times.

In quick glances around the room, I saw several knowing nods as panelists shared the deep challenges and immense benefits that come with school-based behavioral health programs in their schools. Their work is demanding and comes with personal sacrifice, but the outcomes make clear how life-changing it truly can be.

Want to get the very latest news on school-based behavioral health? This March, Voices is releasing a report on school-based behavioral health. Learn how local schools have stepped up to fill funding gaps for school-based health programs and see how those programs tackle the issue of stigma in communities with education and peer supports. Stay tuned!

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