Bay District Schools leaders directing focus on mental health

BAY COUNTY, Fla. (WJHG/WECP) - After recent school events and threats, safety continues to be a pressing topic for school leaders and families.

Students' mental health is also under discussion.

Bill Husfelt, Superintendent of Bay District Schools, has said mental health is a priority for school officials and teachers.

He recommended increasing the number of mental health specialists for schools.

"Currently, we have six social workers that serve twelve schools and so those twelve schools actually used their Title I funds to pay for that, the service of their social worker," Latriva Varnum, Instructional Specialist for Bay District Schools, said.

If referred by a teacher or administrators, students have access to on- or off-site mental health services.

"We have some memorandums of understanding or contracts with some local agencies that provide some mental health services in the schools," Varnum explained.

Florida Therapy provides in-school services for Title I schools on a case-by-case basis.

PanCare provides behavioral counseling at Rosenwald and C.C. Washington.

Students can also be referred to the Life Management Center of Northwest Florida, which is an off-site service.

Those services include behavioral counselors, social workers, or for "Schools of Hope," which are Lucille Moore and Springfield Elementary, wraparound services.

"Wraparound services would mean that we did have on-site mental health professionals and counselors and people for family services so that we begin to include the family as well as the children," Ginger Littleton, Bay District School Board Chair, said.

"Schools of Hope" received the funding for medical and mental services from the state through House Bill 7069.

A local medical professional said she is seeing an increase in mental health incidents. Despite people believing it's simply because people are becoming more aware of mental health concerns, that is not the case.

She said it is a true increase.

"There's several different reasons, you know, genetics, but also at the same time, the social structure, the structure in the house, social media, the easy access to Internet, all those things are promoting more bullying, more mental health problems," Dr. Rubina Azam, a Board Certified Pediatrician said.

Children's mental health proves to be a vast challenge which parents, schools, and medical professionals have to face in tandem.

"I think school-based mental health services are vital to decreasing mental health problems in children," Dr. Azam said.

She recommends teachers receive training in identifying mental health concerns in children, which would reduce the stigma and need for transportation to outside agencies.

For parents, Dr. Azam recommends keeping a diary to document any alarming symptoms, such as anxiety or isolation.