Like so many aspects of our lives right now, end of school year “traditions” have been adjusted, disrupted, and compromised.
While I have personally experienced the frustration and disappointment of these limitations, I have also been impressed to witness the creative solutions that led to unexpected joy: intimate graduations, drive-in slide shows in school parking lots to celebrate the school year, prom dresses with matching masks. The resilience of students, teachers, and administrators is boundless.
Amidst the continued adaptation to pandemic challenges, our interest in the mental health and wellbeing of Georgia’s children and youth is front and center of DBHDD’s focus, especially as we celebrate May as Mental Health Awareness month. I am proud of Georgia’s efforts to bring attention to mental health issues for youth of all ages—from kindergarteners adjusting to hours of screen time to college students grappling with anxiety and loneliness in the face of uncertainty.
My personal experience is that the generation of young people around us have a greater understanding of mental health as part of their overall health. They are more willing to reject old taboos about seeking help for their concerns.
This is progress, but we still have work to do. We must continue to work to make it easy for individuals of all ages to recognize issues of mental health and to teach kids steps they can take at any age to care for themselves and to know when to seek assistance.
How do we continue to make mental health care more accessible for Georgia’s youth?
Georgia’s Apex program is a good first step to meeting kids where they are and connecting them to the support in their community. Started six years ago, the Apex program provides school-based mental health services in more than 700 schools across the state. Our long-range vision for Apex is to build a state where mental health awareness and support is embedded in the culture of our schools—making them a place where teachers and other school staff have ready access to support in identification and referral for youth who may be struggling.
We’re making progress toward that goal. Last school year, family therapy sessions provided through the Apex program increased by 145 percent over the year before, and we served more than 15,600 children—nearly a third of whom received services for the first time.
As with all preventative medicine, the earlier we identify mental health concerns, the easier it is to intervene. Access is an important part of this equation. We are ever mindful that workforce and resource limitations present challenges in access to care, and we have been intentional about ensuring that rural counties are well represented in school selections. Today, Apex exists in 111 Georgia counties, and 58 percent of our programs operate in rural school districts.
As we round out Year 6 of the Apex program, we are bolstered by ongoing support from Gov. Kemp and the Georgia General Assembly that will allow us to continue to expand our effort to embed mental health in the culture of our schools and build a new generation of young people who see mental health as a foundational aspect of their overall health.
If you know me, you know optimism is a driving force for me, and as the dark clouds of COVID-19 hung over our heads this last year, I have been on the lookout for the silver linings. One of them—no doubt—is the increased awareness of the need to take care of our mental health, and the resulting support we’ve received from our partners for the cause—especially when it comes to our children.
Our partners at the Department of Education, for example, have stepped up and designated a Mental Health liaison to support coordination with DBHDD.
The General Assembly, in addition to supporting the growth of Apex in our schools, took important steps this year to address the issue of youth suicide in Georgia. While it is sobering to acknowledge that a need for suicide prevention exists with our youth, it is important to be aware the need is real. Hard numbers aren’t yet available, anecdotal evidence and preliminary data tells us that Georgia—just like every other state in the union—experienced an increase in youth suicide during the pandemic. With support from our leaders in the General Assembly who recognize these very real needs, in Fiscal Year 2022, DBHDD will hire a Youth Suicide Prevention specialist to analyze the data and explore risk and protective factors that help avoid this tragic outcome and fund suicide prevention training in our schools.
And thanks to the ingenuity of our partners at Voices for Georgia’s Children, you can step up to support children’s mental health, too. Our Free Your Feels campaign makes it easy for anyone to support mental wellbeing by just listening and expressing care and concern and to listen to the feelings and emotions that kids are experiencing. Evidence shows kids who can understand and voice their emotions are more likely to have better mental wellbeing and seek help when they need it. I encourage you to visit www.freeyourfeels.org for toolkits and resources designed for everyone—parents, caregivers, educators, and youth. There is opportunity for each of us to make a difference.
For those of us in behavioral health—and across the human services continuum—now is our time. While so many parts of our lives have been adjusted, disrupted, and compromised due to COVID-19, the pandemic has laid bare that our mental health and wellbeing is a vital part of our overall health. Let’s embrace this opportunity to promote awareness and strengthen linkages, so that when people do need help, we can assure it is available. DBHDD always does its work in partnership with others, and we are grateful you have joined us in this fight!