Opinion: Bolster children’s self-esteem, resilience and mental health

Polly McKinney is advocacy director for Voices for Georgia’s Children. In a guest column, she urges the General Assembly to recognize the fallout to the state’s children from the pandemic.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Get Schooled blog asked Georgia advocates for children and schools to explain what they would like to see state lawmakers tackle — or avoid — this upcoming legislative session. Rather than a laundry list, we asked for specific recommendations and advice that they believe will improve children’s lives or student outcomes. This is the final of six guest columns.

You can find the others here.

By Polly McKinney

One of the first things many parents learn when their child starts school is if a kid is anxious or depressed about something at home or school — or really anything else — focusing then on reading, math, science or social studies can be a tall order. Add in a worldwide pandemic, headlines about people hurting other people, and constant talk of a warming planet, both the number of anxious and depressed children as well as the intensity of their feelings jump off the charts.

Kids who returned to in-school learning entered a space plagued by teacher burnout, bus driver shortages, and any number of traumas experienced over the last couple of years at home.

Credit: Contributed

Credit: Contributed

Let’s not forget that about 8,000 of Georgia’s children lost a primary or secondary caregiver to COVID-19. Our next generation has been beset with stressors that can overwhelm even the most stable of adults.

ExploreGeorgia children who lost parents to COVID-19 struggle with grief

Kids are asking for help. At a state Senate Education Funding Study Committee hearing earlier this month, several young people from the Georgia Youth Justice Coalition testified for more mental health supports in schools. Youth interviewed for Voices’ recent publication, Youth Behavioral Health in Georgia Two Years Into the COVID-19 Pandemic, and many of the students in our Kids Explain youth-voice documentaries echo this.

An 18-year-old from Lamar County we interviewed told us: “Growing up, I was suicidal badly … I would try to tell the adults, they’ll be, like, ‘Nothing’s wrong. I don’t see nothing wrong with you.’ They’ll brush it off ... ‘It’s you just feeling pity upon yourself.’”

What can our state lawmakers do this year to help Generation Pandemic?

First, understand that from birth, children experience all kinds of actions, words and events that affect their mental health. These negative, or adverse, experiences can make it harder for kids to behave, learn and grow into their best, most fulfilled and accomplished selves. Conversely, thoughtful and intentional positive engagements and experiences can support our kids, heal a lot of harm.

Second, our policymakers and leaders can put services and supports in place to help in locations where children and youth live, learn and play. Georgia has worked hard to expand our home-grown, successful school-based mental health initiative, the Georgia Apex Program, into more than 730 schools across the state.

Last year alone, the program served 10,962 students, as well as their families, all the while improving child behaviors and school attendance. Apex also is a bridge to help for those who encounter more serious behavioral health diagnoses or crises. Additionally, the expansion of school-based health centers, which address both student and staff physical health as well as some behavioral health, have increased across Georgia too, from just two centers in 2013 to more than 102 in 2021.

But our children and youth need more. Georgia has 1 school counselor per 447 students; the recommended ratio is 1 to 250. The recommended ratio for school psychologists to students is 1 to 500; Georgia has 1 per 6,390 students.

More than 64% of our schools lack a Georgia Apex Program or school-based health center. Even with the most experienced and talented personnel in place, this is an impossible ratio for success on a good day, let alone on a quasi-post-pandemic day. Additionally, counselors are not always positioned to address psychological needs of our youth, but simply assist with college and career decisions. Ironically, without first tending to the mental health of some students, their opportunity to achieve success with college or career can seem out-of-reach.

Disheartening? Yes. Hopeless? No.

ExploreGeorgia students’ private battle: Anxiety disorders in the classroom

With a sizable ember still glowing from the successful passage of Georgia’s expansive behavioral health bill last March, the Mental Health Parity Act, there may still be enough political will amongst our elected leadership to fan the flame this coming session. Let’s start by doing what it takes to reduce the counselor-to-student and social worker-to-student ratios in schools and enable and empower counselors to provide more behavioral health services and supports to the students they serve. That means funding our schools to hire these professionals and adequately training our potential workforce.

Next, let’s improve the antiquated, burdensome and underfunded on-ramp to licensure for behavioral health professionals so that staffing of Georgia’s Apex Program and community behavioral health providers is a less onerous undertaking. Recent testimony before Georgia’s Behavioral Health Reform and Innovation Commission revealed that licensing for behavioral health providers in Georgia requires more supervision hours for professional counselor licensing than any other state in the Southeast. At the same time, the board responsible for reviewing all licensing applications and renewals is made to operate on a shoestring budget, with minimal staff.

Finally, let’s fund things that nurture children’s self-esteem, resilience, and mental well-being. After-school and summer enrichment programs are shown to improve stability, critical thinking skills, and social connection. Recent investment by the state into after-school programs with a few million state dollars plus tens of millions of federal COVID-19 relief dollars have shored up many after-school programs in areas where kids need support the most. Finding a way to keep those programs going once the pandemic dollars evaporate will be key.

There is so much more we could advocate for — school-centered peer-support programs (e.g., Sources of Strength), behavioral health “Clubhouses,” evidence-based therapies to end substance misuse. The list goes on.

But perhaps the simplest thing we could all do is take a minute to really listen to children. One of the students in our documentaries says it best: “If we all understood each other’s humanity just a little bit more and cared for each other’s humanity a little bit more and thought that everybody has everything to do with us, then a lot of these issues would be mitigated.”