Tennessee school children gravely need more mental health, social and emotional support

Children across the country deal with all kinds of sensitive issues every day including fear, the complexities of youth and adolescent anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, gender identity and sexual orientation, and substance misuse

The absence of social interaction and connection during the pandemic only exacerbated these issues that our young people have been facing for decades. Along with this, the pandemic also shifted cultural attitudes toward emotional and mental health support.

The conversation about mental health services in the K-12 space has always been fraught with danger. Some school districts still face resistance from the community to even speak of social-emotional issues in their children’s schools. But the correlation between social-emotional competency development and academic outcomes in the education space is indisputable.

How STARS is working to benefit children in our programs

A recent article titled “Tennessee’s mental health trust fund board approves $6M in spending amid calls for action” brings great hope for young people and their families in schools across Tennessee. These dollars will provide additional opportunities for young people to receive mental health support across the state.

More Middle Tennessee children, from birth to age 5, are receiving early diagnosis and treatment for a wide range of mental health conditions based on federal grant funding from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
More Middle Tennessee children, from birth to age 5, are receiving early diagnosis and treatment for a wide range of mental health conditions based on federal grant funding from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

At STARS, we have seen our school-based therapy and counseling services grow exponentially over the last seven years due to the growing recognition of the importance of social, emotional and mental health services.

Since 2021, we have added over 100 new therapists and counseling staff currently working with students in 11 Middle Tennessee school districts. On-site services provide schools with the ability to eliminate some of the key barriers to receiving help, which includes transportation, access and cost.

It is a privilege to be able to provide mental health support in schools for students and to work with their families and other providers to best address their needs.

More: Report: Tennessee ranks among top child suicide rates nationwide

Parent testimonial shows the value of social-emotional learning

While there are thousands of comments from parents and students we have served, the following from a parent summarizes the value of in-school mental health services:

“The ease of the program, being conveniently held at our child’s school, and the communication with our child’s therapist is huge. Our child is currently in inpatient care, due to their therapist’s intervention. Your staff members saved their life and have consistently done more than they needed to do to support our child. Our child had never been able to build a relationship with a therapist like they had with their STARS therapist. They worked tirelessly to be certain that our child’s needs were met. Your work is lifesaving and what you do matters.”

What a gift to know that the availability of additional support throughout the state will have the same type of impact as this example from our services at STARS. The appropriation of these funds will likely not come without challenges at the local level. Kudos to those who will advocate for this lifesaving support.

We are grateful for state and local support, but we need more

We are grateful for the leadership of the Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse and the Tennessee Department of Education, as well as the local school districts that see the value of supporting student success on both sides of the student report card, the academic and social-emotional wellness.

There is great work happening right now through many providers because of current investments in mental health services for young people.

Rodger Dinwiddie
Rodger Dinwiddie

But the time is now to make K-12 school-based mental health services accessible to all young people.

Rodger Dinwiddie is CEO of STARS Nashville, a nonprofit offering school- and community-based service to provide equitable mental health care to young people.

This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Mental health support: Care for children's social and emotional needs