CONCORD — Kenneth Moore had a big idea for his rural school district — train everyone to be a mental health counselor.
The Concord School District, like one in every five Arkansas school districts, does not have an in-house therapist, full or part time, nor a formal contract with a mental health care provider, according to an Arkansas Democrat-Gazette analysis of public records provided by more than 250 school districts.
Like many places, the district doesn’t have the budget or nearby providers to lean on for student mental health care. Some do, periodically, visit campus to see their clients.
Still, Moore, the superintendent there, wanted to help his kids.
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His plan? Train the faculty and staff to spot warning signs and take action.
“Basically, we’re going to become some extra counselors and people that kids feel comfortable to go through,” Moore said.
It could have come at a better time, but Moore is happy that it’s happening at all.
Anecdotally, the pandemic has made student mental health care worse across the state, putting a wedge between struggling students and help, but Arkansas educators saw holes in the school mental health safety net long before the coronavirus pandemic.
The societal safety net for kindergarten-through-12th-grade schools has for years been expanding to include mental health services. In Arkansas, tens of thousands of students take advantage of it each year, to the tune of tens of millions of dollars in health care billings.
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The pandemic hasn’t just delayed efforts to improve care and school safety. In some cases, it has entirely blocked students from treatment.
Without wider internet connectivity and the built-in accountability of the school setting, many mental health care providers have struggled to reach as many students as they were before.
The conversion rate of students referred by schools into patients has plunged at Families Inc., one the state’s largest providers of school mental health services. The conversion rate was about 80% before the pandemic, according to CEO Mark Thurman. It’s about 50% now.
At the same time, hundreds of student clients have been discharged from care, either because they asked to be discharged or because they simply stopped showing up. But a low percentage of those clients actually met the treatment goal, said Shelly Horton, the agency’s school-based coordinator.
Laquietta Stewart and her fellow school counselors at The Academies and Jonesboro High School School tried to measure the impact of the pandemic on their students’ mental health, surveying pupils in August.
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Students were scared, bored, worried, sad and angry at school or the government….