Advocating for All--County Mental Health Plan Changes With the Times
By Emma Duncan--Eagle Editor
Over the past two years, students and staff have compared life during a pandemic to spinning on a carousel. Everything is constantly changing, leaving many dizzy from the pressure. School psychologists, social workers, and related specialists have noticed these setbacks.
“With Covid I think there’s been a lot more depression and anxiety related to the pandemic,” Christina Gibson, FCHS psychologist, began. “We’ve had more anxiety about being back on campus with so many people, anxiety about getting Covid, anxiety about getting quarantined, anxiety about school pressure, so there’s just a lot of mental health needs.”
Gibson and her peers voiced their concerns and inspired the school board to take action by making one more change to Eagle life: hiring Marcie Altice, new mental health coordinator for the division. She’s working alongside an entirely new committee dedicated to advising Eagles and their families through all seasons of life. Currently, they’re beginning work on a three year plan.
“I’ve been meeting with the different schools to find out the needs,” Altice explained. “We as a committee want to make sure we have adequate support for the students, and to make sure students know what services are out there because we have a lot of services within the school but we also have services that come from the community into the school. We hope to streamline services across all levels, so new regulations will be released for elementary, middle, and high school levels in the future.”
One of these regulations includes hiring family liaisons at the middle and high school levels to extend the work these professionals already do for elementary schoolers and their families.
“Largely, our days consist of doing individual and group counseling, providing classroom-level behavioral support, and responding to crises when needed,” John Young, family liaison for Sontag Elementary, emphasized. “Whether help with food, a utility bill, medication assistance, or a counseling referral, family liaisons are a 'one stop conversation' easily had in the school setting that can successfully connect [families] with a community resource. We desperately need [family liaisons] at the secondary level as parents become accustomed to these supports.”
Expanding the role of family liaisons takes funding though, which Altice may be able to get soon.
“Recently at the school board meetings there have been presentations regarding what to do with the ESSER (Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief) fund money whether that be money with the ESSER 2 grant or ESSER 3,” Altice said. “There are additional [family liaison] positions in that proposal that would get us through the 2024 school year (this year, next year, and the following school year) so we’re trying to figure out timing to put these proposals into action.”
Altice also had visions for enhancing the roles of school psychologists with these grants.
“There’s only one of me and sometimes students don’t know about me necessarily, but Marcie Altice is working to get the word about me out into the high school community,” Gibson explained. “I have a very multifaceted role within the school because I try to help students as a whole person. I do a lot on the academic side for kids with disabilities who may have a learning disability, autism, or ADHD in terms of helping them navigate their strengths and weaknesses. I also help students try to be a successful person as they transition from high school because there’s a lot more to life than just making good grades.”
Gibson shared that she mostly works with students one-on-one, but Altice and she have collaborated to think of new opportunities to broaden Gibson’s impact.
“We’re trying to find a way to do a universal screener for students to take that would help us identify those who have the highest level of need in regards to social and emotional malfunctioning,” Gibson added. “That way we can do more targeted interventions like group meetings.”
Sharing in group meetings comes with a willingness for many to know one’s thoughts, not just the psychologist; however, speaking solely with Gibson, or any other mental professional for that matter, comes with more confidentiality.
“Any kind of gender identity issues students may be thinking about, substance use, or similar topics I keep confidential, but if students tell me of any child abuse, I have to legally report that to Child Protective Services, because as a school psychologist I’m a mandated reporter. If they tell me they’re having thoughts of self harm/suicide or threatening others, I’m completely open and honest and I tell the parents everything. It’s the parent’s responsibility to take their child to get an evaluation if they feel it’s needed. If the parent decides to take their child to Piedmont, for example, then I’ll call the facility, let them know someone’s coming, and explain the scenario because sometimes the student or the parent may not report everything accurately,” Gibson said. “I always tell students this information before they decide to share anything with me.”
In addition to providing mental evaluations like Gibson mentioned, Piedmont Community Challenges (PCS) collaborates with FCPS both inside and outside the county’s 14 schools in numerous ways.
“The Prevention Department has a strong partnership with the school system to support CHILL (Communities Helping Improve Local Lives) and support students being substance-free. PCS partners with FCPS to provide trainings, support services for students, collect data, and provide education. PCS created a School Support Committee this year to support teachers and staff with all of the many challenges that Covid has brought. PCS also participates on the school system’s Health Advisory Board as a community partner,” Director of Prevention Services Regina Clark listed.
“We have established specific types of group services that benefit students, [including those] working on mental health promotion and suicide prevention… and on a community level raising awareness and providing education. We also have staff who visit SLC to provide education on various topics and encourage positive decision making.”
Students or parents wanting to make use of any of these resources should contact a teacher, guidance counselor, or related school worker to learn more information or schedule an appointment.
“If there are any questions I’m happy to help,” Altice offered. “I’m over at the DPPS Building so any parent or student is welcome to call me if they have any questions about linking to resources in the community. Students should be able to get that information from their social worker or counselor. If they aren’t comfortable calling them, they’re welcome to contact me.”