Arkansas schools need more mental health professionals

When it comes to the student-to-professional ratio for school mental health, Arkansas falls short, according to the US School Mental Health Report.

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – Many experts agree that America is in the midst of a youth mental health crisis. A new report examines how schools across the country are coping with the crisis.

American Report Card on School Mental Health is part of the Hopeful Futures Campaign formed by 17 national organizations. The report card uses a scoring guide to review state policies supporting school mental health.

Although the report shows Arkansas is falling short of target in some areas, education officials said they are working consistently to ensure student needs are being met.

Dr. Betsy Kindall, who works for the Arkansas Department of Education, said the state is seeing harsher behavior and more dismissals for mental health issues.

Kindall is the project coordinator for Arkansas WARNED. The federally funded project helps districts with school mental health programs.

“Right now Arkansas has 30,000 children receiving mental health services, and most of those services are in school,” Kindall said.

Kindall said it’s important to meet children where they are. This is also the aim of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), which is part of the Hopeful Futures campaign.

“We have to do something for our children. We are very concerned,” NAMI Arkansas Executive Director Dr. Buster Lackey said. “And why not start in school districts?”

The US Schools Mental Health Report Card shows Arkansas falling short of recommendations in several policy areas.

“I think we still have a long way to go,” Kindall said. “However, I think the report is not a very good representation of all, of all the good things that we have in our state.”

When it comes to the student-to-school mental health professional ratio, Arkansas falls short, according to the report.

He suggests that the state invest in “significantly improving the ratios of school psychologists, school social workers, and K-12 counselors.”

According to Kindall, there is an obstacle in the way.

“Arkansas has a shortage of clinicians, like many states in our country,” she said.

She said that’s one of the reasons the state is working to train all school staff — not just teachers and administrators — on how to identify and help struggling students.

“Just because a student needs help doesn’t mean they always need a mental health clinician,” she said.

State law currently requires all public school staff to complete a two-hour teen suicide prevention training. Arkansas AWARE also offers Mental Health First Aid training.

“We provide the trainers. We provide the materials, whatever is needed for this training to be done,” Kindall said.

Mental health first aid is not required at this time, but school counselors and resource officers must complete the training starting in 2023.

“We’ve really tried to perfect the staff training because we feel our educators need to be in a really good place to come into that classroom and support the kids or even recognize their needs,” Kindall said.

Arkansas AWARE also offers free mental health first aid training for faith-based organizations and community groups.

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