Mental health experts say schools must start planning for the fall, as many students due to return report an increase in anxiety and depression. GPB’s Ellen Eldridge has more from the 25th Rosalynn Carter Georgia Mental Health Forum.

In this Nov. 14, 2019, photo, a student attaches a note to the Resilience Project board on the campus of Utah Valley University, in Orem, Utah.

In this Nov. 14, 2019, photo, a student attaches a note to the Resilience Project board on the campus of Utah Valley University, in Orem, Utah. The purpose of the project is to let students know that it is OK to struggle.

Credit: AP Photo/Rick Bowmer

All children and families in Georgia need some level of support, especially after dealing with the effects of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, mental health experts said during the 25th Rosalynn Carter Georgia Mental Health Forum last week. 

"Much of that support can be provided by implementing universal supports for all children in all schools," Carter Center Director Eve Byrd said Friday. "That is what we refer to as "tier one:" prevention supports that benefit all children and their ability to live well and learn."

Almost 20% of children and adolescents in Georgia have a diagnosed mental health disorder, Byrd said. Those are just the people fortunate enough to have received a diagnosis.

While the goal is to help all students equally, Cheryl Galloway-Benefield with the Georgia Department of Education said not all students arrive at school with equitable backgrounds.

The foundation for school climate starts with making sure students have access to mental health services as well as access to physical and oral health services, she said.

The state has many resources for assessing students' needs, such as the Georgia Apex Program funded by the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities to increase access to mental health services for all school-aged youth throughout the state.

"For as long as they should be in the classroom, we know that children are coming with overwhelming situations to us and a lot of time we jump right to mental health illness, and a lot of times it's not a mental health illness," DBHDD Programmatic Officer Layla Fitzgerald said.

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The best approach, Fitzgerald said, is to normalize the conversation around students' feelings with all teachers and staff in and outside of the schools.

"It's equipping those around them and training those around them who interact with children on a daily basis to sort of be able to assess the signs and symptoms of what are and what aren't mental health illnesses," she said. "To be able to encourage young people to really speak out about their feelings fearlessly and be able to connect them to the right resources."

In the Apex program, there are three tiers of support. The first tier is universal support, in which all children have access to things that  build the mental health of students and support mental wellness.

Georgia is 51st in terms of access to mental health, according to 2021 rankings from Mental Health America.

The Apex program has 31 mental health providers working throughout the state, referring clients to outside resources when necessary. There is a workforce shortage, but Gov. Brian Kemp's one-time distribution of $8.4 million helped grow the program before the pandemic hit.

"Our first year we were in 155 schools; now we're in over 630," Fitzgerald said. "That's a 306% growth over a six-year period."

With schools wrapping up the academic year, administrators should start planning for fall, when many students return to in-person instruction for the first time since March 2020. This is where "tier two" supports such as group counseling and grief support could help, Galloway-Benefield said.

"In the fall, there are going to be students, a group of students, who have experienced loss during the pandemic," she said. "So that group of students might need a support group or just a group to come together to discuss what's happening in their lives."