RANDOLPH COUNTY — In passing a school-based mental health initiative plan at its regular June meeting, Randolph County Board of Education signaled to students and staff that its focus remains on complete wellness.

Board member Brian Biggs expressed the importance of taking care of one’s mental health, explaining that the challenges presented over the span of nearly 16 months made mental health more of a focal point throughout the pandemic.

“I think for some of those kids, it can be anybody at the school, a staff member that they’re kind of drawn to and can make a real difference with them,” Biggs said. “That’s probably the most neglected thing out there is mental health. … I think it’s a great program. I think it speaks to what we’ve been talking about the whole time, about getting in school and staying in school. They can’t notice [signs of stress] when guidance counselors and coaches don’t have those interactions and relationships.

“It was one of those things we were screaming from the rooftops the whole time when a lot of people wanted to stay out of school [during the COVID-19 pandemic]. Those kids and those teachers need those relationships. Once they get out of school, they may not ever have those relationships that they have with those coaches, those staff members.”

The toll of staying home from school even part time was a steep price to pay, board member Tracy Boyles said. Even before the pandemic, the mental health needs of students were often not met. Since the education for children throughout the country was interrupted, studies indicated a decline in the mental health of students and staff.

The pandemic worsened the state of youth mental health with disrupted learning patterns, increased social isolation and less access to support. In 2020, there was a 24% increase in emergency room visits for mental health reasons for children ages 5 through 11 and more than a 30% increase for children between ages 12 and 17, according to the CDC.

Evidence-based prevention and early intervention programs have proven to increase help-seeking behavior. School mental health programs also present an opportunity to learn when students are in abusive situations and provide resources to find safety and healing.

Children and adolescents are more likely to receive needed mental health care in their school than in any other setting. Boyles suggested the school system extend the help it provides students to those responsible for recognizing patterns of unhealthy behaviors among its younger demographic.

“You know, we talk about the kids, but I think sometimes we need a program like this for our staff,” Boyles said. “I mean, teaching is already a mentally stressful job anyway, but after the last two years, that’s really something that needs to be looked at for our staff.”

Staff writer Daniel Kennedy can be reached at 336-888-3578, or at dkennedy@atnonline.net.

Staff writer Daniel Kennedy can be reached at 336-888-3578, or at dkennedy@atnonline.net.