Coping tools, such as this billboard, are provided for students throughout Trent Lott Academy in Pascagoula, Friday, Feb. 25, 2022. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

After 20 years of teaching special education, Alison Rausch has adopted a “one day at a time” attitude towards her job. 

Rausch, who currently teaches fifth and sixth grade at the Wheeler Attendance Center in Prentiss County, has found the uncertainty of the pandemic exhausting. The unpredictable nature of students being out for quarantine leaves her regularly reteaching lessons and makes it difficult to plan. 

There have also been an increased number of students referred to her department for testing for special education services, mostly related to depression and anxiety.  

“I’ve always been a firm believer as a special education teacher — if you don’t provide resources for the mental health, for the behavioral health, for the social skills, then you’re not going to get the academic outcomes that you want,” Rausch said. 

As the pandemic persists, Mississippi and the nation have seen increased anxiety and depression among children. The American Academy of Pediatrics declared a national emergency in child and adolescent mental health in October 2021, which they said was a pandemic-induced escalation of prior trends. In Mississippi, 31,000 youth reported having a major depressive episode in 2019, of which nearly three-quarters said they did not receive treatment according to a new report from Mental Health America. 

Carey Wright, state superintendent of education, said both her teacher and student advisory councils have been very vocal about the need for increased mental health services in response to increased depression and anxiety from the pandemic. 

“To me, that is the part that breaks your heart,” Wright told Mississippi Today. “Statewide, we need to do a really good job of training our teachers and leaders on the signs and symptoms of children and adults that are struggling from mental health and social-emotional issues.” 

READ MORE: ‘We got to get some help:’ Pandemic accelerates need for children’s mental health services

 In the Jackson Public School district, a recent student death prompted district officials to remind the community about the mental health services available to students.

“There are people around you — your teachers, your counselors, your principals, your parents, your pastors, on and on — there are people around you who care about you and want to see you well, so please reach out to us,” Jackson Public Schools Superintendent Errick Greene said in a video message to the district community. “You are not alone, and we need you to know that.”

Jackson Public Schools contracts with Marion Counseling Services to provide onsite mental health specialists at each middle school and high school and uses Hinds Behavioral Health Services at the elementary level. District officials said both services have reported increased demand during the pandemic.

Amanda Thomas, executive director of climate and wellness in Jackson Public Schools, said when a teacher notices a student being withdrawn or making comments about hurting themselves or others, it is imperative not to take it lightly and to begin the referral process. Thomas explained that all staff members are trained on suicide prevention, but recent events have prompted them to do refresher trainings. 

“It can be a little difficult when you are faced with it, even though you think you have those particular tools in your kit, to be able to pull them out and use them,” Thomas said. 

The district is also beginning to implement a social-emotional learning curriculum, which focuses on self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making.

The Pascagoula-Gautier School District began educating staff on these topics in the fall of 2019 as part of a push district officials call “whole-child learning.” 

This work included trainings on common mental health disorders and how to accommodate them in the classroom. It also focused on the “zone of regulation” language that became the baseline curriculum for each school counselor to address mental health. The four zones –  blue, red, yellow, and green – represent different emotions. These include, respectively, sadness/tiredness, anger, anxiety/frustration, and being happy/ready to learn.

Cards such as this one assists students on how to cope with various emotions they experience during their school day at Trent Lott Academy, Friday, Feb. 25, 2022. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

Kristen Sims, who coordinates the program for the district, explained the zones in a video.

“The green zone is where we want to stay as much as we can, but sometimes you might enter one of those other zones … and it is completely normal to feel any of those things,” she said. “But we always want to do our best to get back to the green zone where we’re 100% ourselves.” 

This semester, the initiative was extended to include physical cards that were distributed to each student and feature the four zones as well as coping skills and positive affirmations.  

Sims said the cards were a jumping-off point for broader conversations about mental health among students, especially after they were first introduced in the classroom. 

“For the next 10 minutes, the students all discussed their feelings, saying ‘Oh, I’m in the red zone when I’m taking a math test’ and joking like that, but then also sharing what coping skills work for them,” Sims said. “So the teacher then led almost a group therapy session.”

Jeana Delancey, a school counselor at Trent Lott Academy in the Pascagoula-Gautier School District, called the cards “a great reference point.”

“It’s refreshing to see students come to me with some knowledge already of how to communicate how they’re feeling,” Delancey said. “Like planting a seed and watching it grow.”

At the state level, advocates have been pushing for years for lawmakers to enshrine mental health standards into state law.

Sanford Johnson, director of TeachPlus Mississippi, has been working with teachers to advocate for legislation that would create minimum baselines for mental health care in schools. 

“The teachers that went through (a mental health first aid training) have talked about just how helpful it was because they don’t have to have all the answers — it doesn’t train them how to diagnose, but you’re able to identify a student who may be dealing with a challenge,” Johnson said. “It teaches you how to communicate with that student in a trusting way, and then how to encourage that student to connect with resources.” 

“There have been so many teachers that have talked about particular students where ‘We thought it was a discipline issue, now that I know this information I’m wondering if there was a mental health issue,’” Johnson continued. 

The Mental Awareness Program for School Act, which would have created some of the programming Johnson was pushing for, passed the House earlier this session but died in a Senate committee. 

The Mississippi Department of Education is also addressing this issue by using some of its federal pandemic relief funds for free telehealth and teletherapy services within schools. 

The Oxford School District started its whole-child education push about two years ago. LaTonya Robinson, chief of student services in the Oxford School District, has tried to make this transition a collaborative process. 

”(The) pandemic happened and we immediately realized that we needed more eyes, more people on the ball so that we didn’t miss anybody,” Robinson said. “The pandemic gave us the exciting opportunity of finding out what the gaps were and then restructuring our systems of support so that those gaps no longer existed.”

Schools hold  “at-risk” meetings at least once a month to review the status of each student receiving mental health services from the district.  These meetings are attended by counselors, behavior specialists, intervention specialists, principals, any community partners, and the district’s retention coordinator. 

The district has also worked to more effectively utilize school counselors, following a model from the American School Counselor Association. 

“It takes them away from so much of the paperwork that counselors are traditionally known for and takes them back to the three attributes of attendance, academics, and behavior,” Robinson said. 

Robinson said the district will bring on a clinical psychology intern from the University of Mississippi next school year, and plans to expand the conversation about mental health to also include parental involvement.  

“Mental health is a community problem and not just a school problem,” she said. “Talk more to your kids … Talk to them about things that are going on in their day so that we can connect those dots. There’s never anything worse than being in a disciplinary hearing and having a parent hear something for the first time.” 

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Julia, a Louisiana native, covers K-12 education. She previously served as an investigative intern with Mississippi Today helping cover the welfare scandal. She is a 2021 graduate of the University of Mississippi, where she studied journalism and public policy and was a member of the Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College. She has also been published in The New York Times and the Clarion-Ledger.