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Gov. Kemp visits Dawson County High School to discuss mental health, Apex grant expansion
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Gov. Brian Kemp and his wife, Marty, listen to feedback from Dawson County Schools Board of Education Vice-Chair Will Wade during a round-table discussion on mental health services at Dawson County High School Feb. 11, 2019. - photo by FCN regional staff

By Jessica Taylor

Gov. Brian Kemp traveled to Dawson County High School on Monday afternoon for a round-table discussion with school and mental health officials about mental health services.

The discussion centered on how Dawson County Schools has benefited from the Apex grant program, which Kemp hopes to expand in 2019.

The Apex program began as a pilot program in 2015 with the goal of building infrastructure and increasing access to mental health services for school-aged youth throughout the state by providing mental health counselors inside local schools.

It is supported by the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities, or DBHDD, and is currently in place in approximately 400 schools in Georgia, mainly high schools.

Kemp said he wants to allocate $8.4 million to double the reach of the Apex program, which would provide more mental health counselors inside Georgia schools. This week he has been touring systems that are recipients of the grant to see how it’s used and how it services students.

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Gov. Brian Kemp participates in a round-table discussion about mental health services in the Dawson County Schools district at Dawson County High School Feb. 11, 2019. - photo by FCN regional staff

“When we were putting together our school safety plan … we learned that mental health is a big part of it,” Kemp said. “The more we learn about the Apex program it’s like ‘why do we need to reinvent the wheel?’ Sometimes, we have big ideas but we don’t ask the people implementing them. That’s why we are here today.”

Judy Fitzgerald, commissioner of the DBHDD, said during the Feb. 11 discussion that the original intent of Apex was not just about direct therapeutic intervention, but about building partnerships between the community mental health provider and schools.

With $8.4 million that Kemp wants to allocate to the program, it would effectively double the program, allowing for 800 schools to benefit from a partnership between a local mental health care provider and the school district.

Dawson County Schools, a recipient of the Apex grant, has a licensed counselor from Avita Community Partners serving students inside Dawson County High School and the junior high school who works with students by providing mental health services.

Dr. Janice Darnell, director of student support for Dawson County Schools, said that having the additional mental health counseling available to students has already garnered substantial positive results in discipline data alone.

“A lot of students that have issues that they need to be addressed at the mental health level – sometimes there are barriers in place that prevent them from being able to have those services – and so being able to have someone here (on) our campus has really made a huge impact on being able to make sure that if they were already receiving services there was no lapse and if a child needed additional or new services we have that available to them,” Darnell said.

Dawson County Schools has especially taken student mental health seriously as it is centered in a region with a higher proportion of student suicides in recent years.

Between Dawson and Lumpkin counties, there have been 10 student suicides in the past five years, according to Superintendent Damon Gibbs.

“We have communities in crisis, a mental health crisis in my opinion,” Gibbs said. “We have some mental health dilemmas in our community and the work that Dr. Darnell’s done and the partnership with Avita and work that they’ve done and our counselors and our teachers and the work that we’ve done is I think is helping that issue, but additional funding would allow those services to be expanded.”

The discussion of additional mental health resources was not limited to looking at the impact at the high school and junior high school levels. In fact, many mental health issues are arising at the elementary and middle school level.“(In fifth graders) we see a lot of symptoms of anxiety, symptoms of depression, and even younger than that,” said Riverview Elementary School counselor, Jeremy Lavender.

Vikki Brannon, director of youth health services for Dawson County Schools, also agreed that symptoms of anxiety, depression and childhood trauma are presenting themselves in physiological ways in the nurses’ offices.

“There are so many physiological symptoms coming from kids that are getting out of class due to headaches and stomach aches … and usually it’s not from a medical need that they have. It usually stems from anxiety or depression or crises at home,” Brannon said.

Even students in kindergarten are exhibiting symptoms that they are overstimulated at home and struggling with their mental health, Brannon said.

Officials told Kemp that they would like to be able to expand their use of the Apex grant into the middle school and elementary schools to work on prevention measures.

“Focusing on the high schools is great but I think we really need to get to the prevention end of it which is starting in the elementary schools,” said Avita CEO Cindy Levi.

Avita currently serves 13 counties in northeast Georgia and has counselors serving 31 schools in the region, but Levi hopes to be able to continue to expand their reach with additional funding and additional opportunities to help students.

“Also looking ahead to expand beyond the counseling, we’d like to be able to offer telemedicine as well,” said Levi. “When you look at the barriers for students getting the services that they need, if a parent has to take off half a day of work to go pick them up and drive them and all that sort of thing that could be a barrier – where they’re in the school and if we can provide those services while they’re in the school, then that’s eliminating one of the barriers.”

Gibbs said that the school system is only a few staff members away from being able to implement telemedicine capabilities.

The Apex program is flexible in how the grant is used with general guidelines, but leaving the power in the relationship that develops between the local provider and the school, Fitzgerald said.

After hearing testimonials from Dawson County Schools and from Meadow Creek High School officials in Gwinnett County on Monday morning, Kemp said he felt that the Apex program has been working really well and reaffirmed why he plans to expand the program.

“We’ve learned today too that these issues, a lot of them are starting in middle school and even some of them in elementary school, so I think that’s something we will continue to look at and see disperse whatever funding we have for this program,” Kemp said.