Providing mental health services and outreach to students is a key part of the Fort Smith Public School Systems’ day-to-day operations.
Students having access to the resources they need helps ensure they are getting the best education possible, said Michael Farrell, supervisor of student services for Fort Smith Public Schools.
“Our number one primary focus is education,” Farrell said. “And we know that it is hard to learn when you’re dealing with mental health issues.”
The district has trained officials who offer guidance in a variety of areas including academics, behavioral issues and career/college concerns and readiness. Mental health awareness and understanding are also weaved into the health curriculum for students.
In his years with the district, Farrell has seen a change in the way people view mental health as they pay more attention to the subject. Despite the increased interest, there are still struggles.
“Still the battle is to fight the stigma that goes with mental health illnesses,” Farrell said.
It can be easy for someone to brush off an issue or think they will deal with it later.
Recognizing a problem or concern and having the ability to deal with it is critical, Farrell said.
Having those types of resources in school takes away some of the barriers students might face when looking for help and gives them the chance to receive services in an environment they are comfortable in.
Around 15% of adolescents aged 12-17 reported receiving mental health services at school in 2019, according to the 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health.
The presence of mental health services in schools has become even more important throughout the pandemic.
Marla Kendrick, chief operations officer for Western Arkansas Counseling & Guidance, has seen an increase in the number of children needing services throughout the pandemic.
“(There is) more anxiety, more depression, more acting out,” Kendrick said. “Kids are having problems with social anxiety and social skills.”
There are 39 counselors and three school-based therapists in the district that work with students from grades kindergarten through 12th as a part of a comprehensive counseling program. The district also partners with Western Arkansas Counseling & Guidance Center.
“School-based therapy offers them therapy now until waiting until they’re adults to deal with a problem they might have,” Kendrick said.
The Western Arkansas Counseling & Guidance Center has counselors in 21 school districts throughout six counties in the region. The center works in most of the FSPS’s schools.
They provide therapists and qualified behavioral health specialists if needed, Kendrick said.
“(Students) are able to remain in the school, be seen by their therapist and get the treatment that they need,” Kendrick said.
The option also helps relieve parents of having to take their students off-campus and find resources.
“For good therapy to work, you’ve got to have a 360,” Farrell said.
Having the school, therapists and parents all able to work together and surround students with support is important, Farrell said.
To see a counselor students can refer themselves by stopping by the counselor’s office. Friends, parents, staff and teachers can also refer a student to a counselor if they think the student needs guidance or help.
Students can also make appointments at the Mercy Clinic Family Medicine – North H Street, located between Darby Middle School and Tilles Elementary School, to receive mental health services.
Abbi Ross is the city reporter at the Southwest Times Record. She can be reached at aross@swtimes or on Twitter at @__AbbiRoss