A north Georgia school superintendent lamented at an August gathering of lawmakers in Jasper that some of his 3,600 students often arrive for classes with mental health needs that outstrip the capacity of the part-time counselor’s ability to help.
“It’s a struggle,” Dawson County Superintendent Damon Gibbs said by phone recently. “It’s not something that’s brand new to communities, but there’s a higher percentage of kids struggling now with mental health issues than I’ve seen in my 25-year career.”
That need explains why in this season of state budget cuts a school-based program to help identify problems and provide a therapist to work with kids, families and teachers appears likely to be spared. The Georgia Apex Program is designed to improve access to mental health services, provide early detection and intervention, and build relationships between mental health providers and schools.
Gov. Brian Kemp added $8.4 million to increase the Apex program’s budget to $22 million for this year, signaling it might be a priority along with teacher pay raises that will get a pass on the belt-tightening taking place now across state government.
The program’s budget increased each of the first four years since it started under the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities. The state agency contracts through Apex with mental health providers who work daily in schools.
Through the first three years of Georgia’s Apex program, 8,705 students received mental health services for the first time.
“(Apex) helps reduce stigma because health professionals are embedded in a school environment and it increases access because there are no transportation barriers,” said Danté McKay, director of the state’s Office of Children, Young Adults and Families. “Whether it’s ADHD or depression or having suicidal thoughts, there’s a lot of needs to address (mental health) in a meaningful way.”
A school-based therapist also can isolate problems that are not related to mental health, said Erica Fener-Sitkoff, executive director of the policy and advocacy organization Voices for Georgia’s Children.
“Maybe they are having vision problems and their behavior is escalating and they’re acting out,” she said. “Having a trained clinician is really important to make sure we’re not identifying a child as having a mental health problem when something else is going on.”
Many Georgia students bring mental or behavioral issues to school, and in communities across the state, access to health care services is limited.
More than 80,000 middle and high school students in Georgia said they considered harming themselves in 2015, according to a Voices for Georgia’s Children report.
National figures show one in six children and teenagers deal with some type of mental disorder annually, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
Meanwhile, 76 counties in Georgia did not have a licensed psychologist and 52 counties did not have a licensed social worker in 2015. The Apex program is designed to fill that gap in rural communities.
Highland Rivers Health provides therapists to 25 schools through Apex in Gordon, Pickens, Gilmer and Bartow counties.
Typically, a school counselor refers the student to a Highland therapist with parental permission. The therapist interviews the student and the family before a potential treatment plan is developed, said Gabriel Trujillo, Highland’s Apex program manager.
“If we’re serious about long-term success in the life of an individual student, we have to involve that family,” he said. “All of our interests have to be focused on empowering that family to be able to meet that child’s needs depending on what the issue is.”
In Atlanta, CHRIS 180 provides therapists to 30 schools through Apex, including Atlanta’s Tuskegee Airmen Global Academy
In addition to the therapists, the program also works with teachers and support staff to help them reduce bullying and other problems, said Melissa Graves, director of strategic initiatives for CHRIS 180.
The result is fewer suspensions and other disciplinary problems since implementing Apex, she said.
Still, while the reviews are positive for the Apex program, more support is needed for schoolchildren who can’t concentrate on their studies because they are troubled and distracted. The Dawson County school system’s Gibbs said more state funding is needed to allow school systems to add full-time counselors.
“When the state legislators are talking about state funding and everyone is talking about how we service our children, we must include mental health as part of that conversation,” he said.