By Lucas L. Johnson II

Supporters of more mental health resources for Tennessee students say the COVID-19
pandemic has revealed even more the need for what they’ve been preaching.

For years now, health care advocates have been calling for more resources to address the
mental health of K-12 students, such as more counselors in schools. In the wake of COVID-19, K-12 families, particularly those in underserved communities, are facing significant mental health issues.

“Mental health resources were often not available, other than through schools,” said Dr. Sherry Blake, a licensed clinical psychologist and national expert on mental health. “When the schools shut down, that shut all their resources off for any type of mental health services. And that was very dangerous because it’s often the school counselors that pick up on things like abuse or dysfunction in the home.”

Nationally, one in five children has a mental health diagnosis in any given year. Over 60 percent of children who receive mental health services do so through their school.

Dr. Christopher Thompson has spent nearly 20 years in and out of the classroom teaching grade school and college students. He said it was when he taught in the public school system that he saw firsthand the challenges students faced, particularly those in urban areas, and that the pandemic has exacerbated those issues.

“I think we have grossly underestimated the mental and emotional effects that COVID has had on our students,” said Thompson, who is also author of the book Choose to Dream. “Not to mention, the deficits that our students now have to contend with because they missed so much time out of school.”

Before it adjourned in May, the Tennessee General Assembly passed legislation that allocates $250 million to create mental health services for school-aged students.

“The mental health of all Tennessee students is essential to their safety, education and success beyond the classroom,” said Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee. “While my administration proposed these critical mental health supports last year, we now have the available funding and a greater need than ever before to ensure our students have access to mental health resources.”

Services supported by the Mental Health Trust Fund include: direct clinical services in schools; mental health awareness and promotion; suicide prevention and postvention strategies; trauma-informed programs and practices; and violence and bullying prevention.

Tennessee Rep. Harold Love, Jr., a Nashville Democrat, was among the many lawmakers who voted for the Mental Health Trust Fund, which received bipartisan support. However, he believes even more can be done in terms of mental health, which is why he plans to propose legislation next year that would increase the number of counselors in K-12 schools.

Currently, Love said there is roughly one counselor to every 750 students. His legislation would make it one counselor to every 350 students.

“The current ratio is in such a manner, that you cannot get the adequate help that students need,” said Love. “You’re talking about a counselor in a school having to split their time between several schools and several students, which can be problematic.”

In October, the U.S. Department of Education released a new resource to provide information and resources to enhance the promotion of mental health and the social and emotional well-being among children and students.

“Our efforts as educators must go beyond literacy, math, history, science, and other core
subjects to include helping students to build the social, emotional, and behavioral skills they will need to fully access and participate in learning and make the most of their potential and future opportunities,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona. “Amid the pandemic, we know that our students have experienced so much. We can’t unlock students’ potential unless we also address the needs they bring with them to the classroom each day. As educators, it’s our responsibility to ensure that we are helping to provide students with a strong social and emotional foundation so that they also can excel academically.”

Editor’s Note:
This is the fifth story in a series on the impact COVID-19 is having on K-12 education across