TEXARKANA, Texas -- With the start of another academic season, the mental health of students and staff is coming into sharper focus for school districts throughout the region.
Monitoring behaviors and thinking becomes all the more important in light of how eventful a young person's life can be, family counselor Dr. Karen Parker said.
"Adolescents experience more anxiety and depression because of physical, emotional and social changes around them," said Parker, an assistant professor at Texas A&M University-Texarkana. "It's so difficult to navigate through the hormonal changes and everything, so it's very important for them to have people to support them through that and help them make decisions."
The Gazette reached out to local school districts to see how they are addressing the mental health needs of students and teachers.
According to Haley Turner, director of marketing and communications, Pleasant Grove's counselors have seen an increase in anxiety and signs of depression in students in recent years.
"All of our middle school staff received trauma-informed care training during professional development in August," Turner explained. "Trauma-informed care utilizes TBRI (Trust-Based Relationship Intervention) to meet the needs of students who may be suffering from trauma or some form of mental illness."
Teachers also receive training in suicide prevention, mental illness bullying and conflict resolution. Turner said the district also uses CATCH (Coordinated Approach To Child Health) curriculum to assist counselors and teachers with including character building exercises throughout the school day.
In a recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study, 27% of teachers were found to have symptoms of clinical depression and 37% reported symptoms of generalized anxiety during the pandemic.
Pleasant Grove also provides mentors for new teachers and encourages self-care and open communication among staff.
Director of Public Relations Todd Marshall said Texarkana ISD uses the Leader in Me character-building curriculum and the Texas Education Agency's Project Restore. The six-session Project Restore is paired with campus-wide discussions on how to address the emotional needs of students.
"The most obvious impact on students over the last few years comes as an increase in the number of students that have experienced some form of trauma," Marshall said. "The trauma experienced by our students is often as unique as the student themself. Equipping all staff to recognize signs of trauma has allowed students to receive additional support."
TISD also uses the EmployeeConnect program to assess and support the mental well-being of staff. The program is free through the Lincoln Financial Group.
"This service is confidential and available 24 hours a day, seven days a week for employees and their family members," Marshall explained. "The professionals that staff speak or meet with are experienced and credentialed counselors."
Dr. Genia Bullock, Texarkana Arkansas School District's director of public relations, said staff can access an employee assistance program called AR-Connect for short-term therapeutic care and assistance in finding treatment.
"TASD hired intervention specialists to assist with behavior," Bullock said. "Classroom observation and intervention support (can also be) offered by behavior specialists."
According to Bullock, TASD employs an social-emotional learning curriculum based on the book "Permission to Feel" by psychologist Dr. Marc Brackett. The book provides suggestions on how adults can meet the emotional needs of children, as well as their own.
At TASD, teachers are also offered mentorships, said Bullock, adding district data does not indicate an increase in mental health problems among students.
Superintendent Brian Bobbitt of New Boston ISD said each campus, including the special education cooperative, has a counselor, with the elementary school having two.
"Not necessarily noting a big increase in this, but some students have absolutely struggled with time off from COVID," Bobbitt said. "We've had some students struggle to re-engage in the educational process, so we try to work closely with them to provide some support along the way."
NBISD also provides a mentorship program for teachers and staff. Bobbitt said district administration maintains an open-door for teachers and staff who need a listening ear.
At Liberty-Eylau ISD, Superintendent Ronnie Thompson said the district uses "extra funds we receive to hire some extra counselors." The district also uses a character building curriculum.
According to an Associated Press report, for every counselor in the state of Texas, there are approximately 392 students. For the state of Arkansas, the ratio is 1-to-361.
Parker encourages parents and caretakers to communicate and pay attention to their children.
"They have extra stressors that we don't even know about, so just constantly communicate with them," Parker said. "Let them know you're here so that you can give them guidance. Make sure they have a counselor. Kids will tell counselors things that they won't tell their parents."