September 24, 2021

Collaborating to Support Student Mental Health: A Conversation Recap

GoGuardian Team
An illustration of a teacher comforting a student

Eighteen months into the pandemic, student mental health remains front and center for educators and advocates today. 

Earlier this month, GoGuardian hosted a virtual panel discussion to learn how educational leaders and mental health experts in Tennessee are collaborating to support student mental health. As part of the discussion, panelists shared insight and advice that other districts and professionals can use to provide well-rounded mental health support for students.

Panelists included:

  • Janet A. Watkins, Project Coordinator for Tennessee AWARE
  • Dwight Hunter, President of Tennessee Parent Teacher Association
  • Barry Bryant, LMFT, NCC, Behavioral Therapist for Rhea County Department of Education
  • Becky Stoll, Vice President of Crisis & Disaster Management for Centerstone

Here are some key actions the panelists recommended schools take.

1. Address any persisting mental health stigma.

The first step toward solving a problem is admitting the problem exists — but stigma is a major obstacle to taking that first step. To successfully support mental health, the stigma around mental health concerns must be removed and addressed among parents and caregivers. 

Anti-stigma campaigns can take a variety of forms. According to Janet A. Watkins, Project Coordinator for Tennessee AWARE, some Tennessee schools have student-led campaigns, including a student-produced podcast on mental health. “That has been one of the most innovative things I’ve seen happen, because students will listen to other students,” Watkins said. “We’re seeing an uptick in those districts of students accessing mental health services.” 

2. Break down silos between mental health professionals in schools.

“We have mental health professionals in schools: we have nurses, we have psychologists, we have school counselors, we have social workers,” said Watkins. “But what I’ve seen over and over again…no one is talking.” This leads to disjointed support for students facing challenges.

Tennessee AWARE, a mental health initiative from the Tennessee Department of Education, offers training to help schools conduct internal assessments to gauge how successfully they are providing continuity of care for students. 

When mental health providers are consistent and in communication with each other, they provide better care to those they serve. And they may also be better able to determine the root of surfacing problems. 

“We shouldn’t just be pulling people out of the water who are drowning,” said Becky Stoll, Vice President of Crisis & Disaster Management for Centerstone. “We need to go upstream and see why they’re even getting in the water in the first place.”

3. Integrate parents, caregivers, and families into decision-making and the mental health conversation.

“When families are engaged in the decision-making process, it helps with collaboration in the entire school system,” said Dwight Hunter, President of Tennessee Parent Teacher Association.

It can be difficult for school counselors to engage with parents face-to-face. Busy schedules, stigma, and, in some cases, distrust of public schools can build and enforce distance between parents and school mental health professionals, according to Barry Bryant, LMFT, NCC, Behavioral Therapist for Rhea County Department of Education. The pandemic has exacerbated many of these dynamics. 

Ultimately, the onus is on schools to bridge the divide and communicate what’s going on with students, while also giving parents and caregivers a voice. By honestly engaging with parents and giving them opportunities to provide feedback, schools can build trust, improve rapport with parents, and hopefully lead to better support for students.

Actions Speak Louder Than Words

It’s easy to get stuck in the brainstorming, analysis, and ideation stage when it comes to complex problems like mental health, but taking action is imperative. Our panelists provided these words of advice to listeners:

  • Becky Stoll: “Be loud and be somebody that wants to make this difference...We have to do better by our students.”
  • Janet A. Watkins: “We have to have student voice…We don’t have all the answers, so let’s ask the students, ‘What do you need? And what can we do to help you?’”
  • Dwight Hunter: “Engagement means listening, but you’re also acting on what you’re hearing and putting it into practice…Family and community engagement is key for school systems to establish strong health systems.”
  • Barry Bryant: “When we talk about mental health, let’s underscore ‘health.’ What do we need to do to have a healthy brain?…Let’s stop hypothesizing about it and let’s start doing something about it.”

Want to learn more about how your school can collaborate to better support student mental health? Watch the full panel discussion below.