By Andrew Edwards
Elmore/Autauga News Staff Writer
May is Mental Health Awareness Month and the Elmore County School System is doing their part with their CARES program, which advocates for the mental wellness of all stakeholders of Elmore County Public Schools.
The state awarded Elmore County Public Schools funding through the Operation Student Success program last year, providing a plethora of mental health resources that were not previously available. Those resources included virtual calming rooms, one-stop shop counseling services, and the CARES Connection Parent Education Series – which was developed in January 2021 to train and educate parents on mental wellness resources, hot topics in children’s mental health, and strategies for helping their children.
The school system was also able to create a new position, Mental Health Service Coordinator, in which they hired long-time employee of Elmore County Public Schools as well as a private practitioner, Jessica Shields.
Shields, who took on her role as Mental Health Coordinator in September of 2020, says that one of her goals in her new position is to remove the stigma that comes with the term “mental health.”
“When people say ‘mental health,’ it typically comes with a negative connotation. People think that it’s a diagnosis, a problem, or an issue that needs to be fixed. In reality, it’s just another aspect of our life that needs to be balanced – just like how we do socially and spiritually,” Shields said.
From May 3-7 Children’s Mental Health Awareness week will be recognized in Elmore County. The theme for the week will be “flip the script” and will focus on the idea that mental health is just another facet of life.
The grant provided by the state couldn’t have been given to the school system at a better time. As Shields explains, the coronavirus pandemic has amplified the need for mental health resources.
“The brain is designed to like predictability with routine and repeat patterns. COVID came in and disrupted all of those patterns, and in turn, we’ve had to live lives without predictability. The way that we had to socialize and work over the past year really flipped everything on its head, and it only made people more and more tired to function on the daily,” Shields said.
Without that interaction in the school system, Shields said that a spike in anxiety in children has been noticed over the past year.
“The biggest rise in children has been, without a doubt, anxiety. With that, you typically see excessive amounts of worrying which leads to a multitude of physical symptoms,” Shields said. “I’m a strong believer that social media and news exposure has affected us as a population. Having to feel like we have to be constantly connected all the time can sit like a weight on your chest.”
In response to the rise in anxiety, Shields and counselors across the county have used the resources provided to them from the Operation Student Success Grant. While Shields is grateful for her new position with the county, she is keenly aware of others in our area that do similar work.
“We have fabulous school counselors and other faculty and staff who do amazing work with mental health. Those people are the true front-liners who help to provide a service to our students across the county,” Shields said.
Shields, as well as other school counselors and staff, help to serve over 12,000 students in Elmore County. You may find the initiative on Facebook by searching for Elmore County CARES or call 334-567-1200 for more information.