Mental illness is on the rise in Bibb County schools. But help is hard to come by

When Desia Selby became a school counselor five years ago, she knew she wanted to make a difference in students’ lives.

Selby had been a language arts teacher at Weaver Middle School in Macon for seven years, but she hoped that as a counselor she could get to know students on a deeper level.

Selby is one of the 56 counselors who serves the nearly 24,000 students of the Bibb County School District. In her role, Selby meets with students one-on-one and in groups to provide academic and career guidance, and also to support their social and personal development.

It’s a big job, and sometimes Selby can feel stretched thin.

“We may not necessarily be able to touch everybody,” she said.

In Georgia, schools receive funding to hire one counselor for every 450 students. The American School Counselors Association recommends a ratio of 250 to one.

And there’s not just a shortage of counselors — the number of school psychologists in Bibb County is also at low. Many school psychologists have retired in recent years, and fewer people seem to be entering the profession, said Brooke Widner, coordinator of psychological services for the district.

She said the school district’s seven full-time and two part-time psychologists are each responsible for about 2,500 students, though the National Association of School Psychologists advises one psychologist for 1,000 students.

“In my position, I’m just really having to be very creative in finding ways to meet the demands of the work that’s coming our way because we don’t have the personnel to fulfill it in a timely fashion like we would like,” Widner said.

Children and adolescents are suffering from rising rates of mental health disorders nationwide, but the Bibb County School District faces a shortage of counselors and mental health professionals who can help students in need.

More students in need

One in five children ages 13 to 18 has or will have a serious mental illness at some point, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. In Georgia, nearly 90 percent of youth with severe major depression don’t receive consistent mental health treatment, a 2017 report by Georgia Voices for Children found.

Georgia ranks 48th out of 50 states and the District of Columbia for its mental health workforce, with one mental health professional for every 900 residents. In Massachusetts, which tops the list, the ratio is one to 200.

Mental illness has become more prevalent in Bibb County schools in recent years, said Director of Support Services Beverly Stewart.

“I would definitely say that we have seen an increase in the number of students coming to school with mental health issues, be it anxiety, or ADHD, depression, suicidal ideation,” she said. “So across the district, that we are seeing an increase in that.”

Stewart said a range of factors affects students’ mental health. At school, stress can peak during testing times or when a student is being bullied. But circumstances outside of school can also play a role, especially for students suffering from trauma.

“Some of the trauma issues are a result of things that may be happening at home, be it divorce, separation, neglect, or even, you know, low self-esteem,” Stewart said.

Selby has also noticed an uptick in suicide ideation among her students.

“I’ve seen a very dramatic increase, I would say, within the last couple of years,” she said. “And I think some of it is social media related.”

Multiple studies have demonstrated a correlation between social media use and mental health issues.

“It is pretty clear that of the studies that have been done, that higher rates of social media use, higher rates of smartphone use are typically associated with negative factors of well-being, whether that be stress, depression, anxiety, so on so forth,” said Jeff Cain, a professor at the University of Kentucky who has written about the topic.

Social interaction can play a big role in students’ mental health, and some researchers argue technology has fundamentally changed how children and adolescents interact with one another.

“Kids in schools today, they may not know a lot of their friends on social media, so I think that might add to the feelings of social isolation, which can influence mental health,” said Travis Hardin, a professor of psychology at Mercer University.

Hardin said apps like Facebook have changed what it means to be a friend. Though students may interact with hundreds or even thousands of “friends” on social media, they spend less time interacting face-to-face and have fewer close friends that they can really open up to when issues arise.

“Having a core a group of people, I think that helps a lot, ones that you know you can count on that won’t share your secrets and what not,” Hardin said. “And I think a lot of that has changed because of, well, social media.”

Technology can also exacerbate bullying in schools. Hardin said on average one in two students experiences bullying in the U.S. Sometimes that bullying happens in person, but it often happens on social media or through text.

“Because a lot of it is behind a screen, behind a phone, you’re more, like, comfortable with saying things you wouldn’t ordinarily say in a face-to-face interaction,” he said.

And when technology is the platform for bullying, students can’t escape it when they go home at the end of the day. Hardin said when those students don’t feel like they can turn to a parent or counselor for help, they have to deal with the issue on their own.

“There’s not a lot of resolution that goes with it,” he said. “Some of the students who experience that, as well, they start to think about ending their lives, too, because of what’s said or what’s posted on social media.”

Wasting students’ talents

Without proper access to mental health care, students struggle to meet their full potential, Hardin said.

“By not having access to it or access to enough of it or good quality care, I think you’re going to waste a lot of students’, like, gifts and talents,” he said.

Research has demonstrated time and again that poor mental health can impact students’ success in school. Hardin said it can hinder students’ ability to study, focus on homework or score well on tests.

“Your mind’s not really on the task at hand of you studying for tests, exams, things like that,” he said.

But Hardin explained that there’s a stigma surrounding mental health, and a shortage of school counselors and psychologists could deter students from seeking out a service that’s already laden with barriers.

“If students don’t feel like they have that option, or it’s not — they’re as welcomed in it, or it’s not as easy to get to, or there’s not enough staff, then they might just say, ‘Then I just won’t don’t it,’ ” Hardin said.

Lack of access to mental health care in schools, he said, can send students a message that their mental well-being isn’t important. And when students don’t do well in school, the state of their mental health is often overlooked as a possible underlying cause.

“If I don’t feel very well about myself, if I’m going through these issues and I’m not getting the help for it and I take a test — like a standardized test, for instance — and I don’t score very highly on that, then I’m told that I’m not very, quote, smart,” Hardin said. “Well, that just kind of feeds back into that, and that makes the issue worse.”

Bridging the gap

Despite the shortage of counselors and psychologists within Bibb County schools, Stewart said the district strives to address its students’ mental health as best it can.

When a student exhibits signs of mental illness or distress, multiple parties at the school can step in to offer help. For example, school counselors can check in with students and provide a mental health assessment if a student appears to be at risk of harming him or herself.

However, counselors are not equipped to intervene themselves when a serious issue arises, Stewart said.

“Our scope of services, it’s kind of a gray line,” she said. “Because, you know, for the most part, counselors are not really — they’re trained, in a sense, but not trained to the extent to provide that depth of service that the student may need if they are truly having a crisis situation.”

In such cases, counselors provide students with a list of mental health providers in the community and leave it to the families to decide what plan of action they’d like to pursue. Many students, Stewart said, seek counseling at River Edge Behavioral Health, which also provides in-house care at several elementary schools in the district.

The county’s school psychologists have to refer students out for clinical care when an issue arises, as well, Widner said. Because there are thousands more students than psychologists, Widner and her colleagues have large caseloads and spend most of their time performing psychological evaluations. With so many student assessments to complete, school psychologists don’t have the time to provide counseling sessions for students like they used to in the past.

“Some of my colleagues who have been in this a lot longer, they used to be able to conduct counseling sessions on a regular basis with children,” Widner said. “However, because of the shortage and the increase in referrals, we’re unfortunately not able to provide counseling right now, especially because of our departmental deficit that we’re in.”

Widner added the understaffed department typically must wait until a crisis arises, instead of providing front-end support.

“We’re not able to be as involved in a proactive sense as we would like to be,” she said.

A shortage of local outpatient providers of adolescent mental health care further exacerbates the effects of the lack of mental health resources in school. Students can easily fall through the cracks, especially if their families are uninsured or can’t afford a private practitioner’s rate.

But Selby said she’s determined to let students know there are resources available to them. Even though there are only three counselors for the about 900 students at her school, Selby said there’s a whole team of counselors, teachers and other staff members who want to help students. It’s a collaborative effort, she said.

“Students don’t have to suffer in silence,” Selby said. “They don’t have to suffer alone. There are people who care and that are willing to walk with you through your journey, whatever that might — whatever shape or direction that may take. You know, there are people that are willing right here in the school to support you.”

Samantha Max is a Report for America corps member and reports for The Telegraph with support from the News/CoLab at Arizona State University. Follow her on Facebook at facebook.com/samantha.max.9 and on Twitter @samanthaellimax. Learn more about Report for America at www.reportforamerica.org.

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