ACPS Recognizes Mental Health Awareness Month

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The COVID-19 pandemic has taken its toll in many ways. During Mental Health Awareness month, we explore the resources available to families in Alexandria City Public Schools (ACPS).

“Mental health awareness and support have always been critical within our community, and the challenges over the last few years have only shown us the importance of sustained universal support in this area,” explains Dr. Darrell Sampson, executive director of student support teams (SST). He says ACPS is helping to meet mental health needs through Social and Emotional Learning Supports (SEAL) and the RULER social-emotional curriculum for all students. Social-emotional interventions are also available for students with greater levels of need and can also be accessed through partnerships, particularly with the City of Alexandria’s Department of Community and Human Services.

Dr. Sampson adds, “We have made it a priority to train all school staff in recognizing students who may be in distress and build their skills to connect them with an SST member who can provide resources and support through Kognito. Through these efforts, ACPS is working to ensure all of our students have access to programs and supports that build resiliency and foster wellness as we continue to move through challenging times.”

ACPS Mental Health Specialist Shannon Hudson-Odoi points to research showing the prevalence of anxiety and depression has increased during the pandemic in both youth and adults in part due to social isolation, financial insecurity and the fear of illness. There has also been a reported shortage of mental health clinicians to address these concerns, thus increasing the importance of having access to mental health support within our schools. The rise in mental health concerns has also sparked an awareness of mental illness and has propelled schools and the community to discuss the topic and the supports needed.

During the 2021-22 school year, SEAL instruction has provided students with an opportunity to feel connected with others and to the school environment and build relationship skills as well as conflict resolution skills through community circle activities. It has been illustrated in research that when social and emotional learning skills are explicitly taught, practiced and reinforced in schools, students have better behavioral, social and academic outcomes. SEAL promotes positive, safe and nurturing learning environments for all students and can have a beneficial impact that lasts a lifetime. The focus on SEAL within ACPS helps students identify and discuss their feelings and emotions and develop healthy coping strategies towards self-regulation, thus reducing behavior challenges and increasing academic engagement.

“Having the time allotted for SEAL has made a significant difference in my class climate and community,” according to Margret Posey, a kindergarten teacher at James K. Polk Elementary School. “My class of kindergarteners are daily checking in on each other, asking ‘How do you feel today?’ and then responding in an appropriate way.”

Tesfaye Amberber, a bilingual liaison who supports families through ACPS Family and Community Engagement (FACE) programming, says the effects of the pandemic have prompted several phone calls from families who were concerned about their children’s mental wellness, such as depression, isolation, sleep disturbances and being argumentative at home and in school. Amberber says knowing there is a cultural stigma associated with mental health related issues, FACE organized a workshop with Amharic-speaking health professionals. Nearly 100 people participated, sharing their concerns about their children’s mental wellness and receiving assurance and information about coping skills. Amberber said participants left the workshop knowing that “people who are concerned about their children’s mental health can contact school counselors, psychologists or nurses.”

Each school site has a SST composed of school counselors, school nurses, school psychologists and school social workers who are available during the school day to provide assistance to students, staff and families on academic, career, health, behavioral and social-emotional development. Secondary schools also have clinicians providing on-site individual and group counseling through a partnership with the City of Alexandria’s Department of Community and Human Services. Teenagers can also visit the Teen Wellness Center at Alexandria City High School – King Street Campus to talk to a counselor.

Students and families can access these supports if there is a crisis or emergency after hours: