Students in crisis: Social workers in schools can only do so much

Mental Health Counselors

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, a time to shine the spotlight on the challenges social workers face finding additional support for students.  Good mental health is critical to a child’s success in school and life.  

The Tuscaloosa County School System recently partnered with Tuscaloosa’s One Place a way to ensure ensure the mental health needs of their students are met.

Corey Savage is among the handful of social workers who serve students in TCSS; he splits his time between two schools, meaning he’s working with more than 2,500 students.  

 “That’s the tough part,” said Savage. “You are split between two schools and the resources are just not in place right now to have a social worker at every school, so you really lament that.”  

When WVUA 23 News visited one of those schools just before noon, Savage said he’d seen six students so far that day. That’s about average, he said, as there’s been a spike in students seeking help with mental health issues.

With everything going on in the world today on top of school and extracurriculars, students are in dire need of a patient ear or advice.

“The average student just needs support,” said Savage. “They just need mental and emotional support. Things like, ‘Hey Mr. Savage, I have a big test coming up. Things are getting hard at home. I need help navigating how to feel and how to think about that.’ Food insecurity in homes, to abuse and neglect, to general anxiety and suicide, you see it all in terms of mental and emotional distress with students.”

Social workers within TCSS have protocols in place to help students maintain their mental health discretely. Students who need support can scan a QR code found on forms throughout the school to set up an appointment. Teachers can also reach out and seek support on behalf of their students.  

“There are things we do to kind of calm (students) down, get them breathing and then we kind of talk through that,” said Savage. “Some students cannot continue their day until they get immediate assistance.” 

When Savage isn’t meeting with students, he’s teaching them the importance of advocating for themselves. He also plans group therapy sessions and refers students to long-term care if needed. That represents its own challenges, he said, because asking for help is a lot easier than finding it.

“What we are seeing in our community is the ability to refer out for students and adolescent children and the options are few and far between,” said Savage. “We have to expand our search for assistance and aid. Not saying the partners we have in place are not doing adequate work, but there are not a lot of them. The needs outweigh these institutions’ and agencies’ capacity to deliver services to our students.” 

Savage said there’s a simple solution for fixing the problem: More money.

“There needs to be an emphasis from the top down at the state level to increase funding for adolescent mental health services and your mental health in general,” said Savage.  “I think that once we see a commitment to funding these institutions, then in turn you will see a commitment at the local level.” 

When that support gets to the local level, additional mental health services should trickle back to the students.

Most of the social workers at the Tuscaloosa County School System are contracted by Tuscaloosa’s One Place, which provides resources to promote self-sufficiency, strengthen families and prevent child abuse and neglect.  

WVUA 23 will continue to highlight issues surrounding mental health throughout the month of May, which is Mental Health Awareness Month. If you or someone you know needs help, a new nationwide hotline has been established. Anyone can call 988 to get help. 

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