National School Social Work Week emphasizes importance of mental health

 National School Social Work Week emphasizes importance of mental health

Weakley County Schools Mental Health Team (l-r) First row: Scott Smiley, Brittany Jaco, Arlene Autry Second row: Alex Cunningham, Kellie Sims, Lindsey Odle, and Megan Cochran Not pictured but part of the team are Hailey Hansen, SBBHL contracted through Carey Counseling Center, and Hillary Eddlemon, Student Assistance Program Counselor contracted Carey Counseling Center.

With National School Social Work Week celebrated March 5-11, Weakley County Schools’ mental health team is taking the opportunity to shine a light on the importance of student and faculty mental health.

WCS Communications Director Erica Moore says National School Social Work Week is an opportunity for schools, communities, and partners to acknowledge and recognize the impactful work they do to support students, families, and their communities.

Weakley County Schools works alongside students and families with a team of mental health professionals. The district has a total of seven support professionals with varying degrees to include social work, psychology, and counseling. The team also has the help of three school psychologists, a school-based behavioral health liaison, and a contracted student assistance program counselor.

Although there are strong mental health supports in place in the district, the need continues to grow.

A national survey* conducted by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC] cited that more than 4 in 10 (42%) students felt persistently sad or hopeless and nearly one-third (29%) experienced poor mental health. Additionally, more than 1 in 5 (22%) students seriously considered attempting suicide, and 1 in 10 (10%) attempted suicide.

Locally, more than 350 students were referred during the 2021-22 school year. If current trends are an indication, total referrals for the 2022-23 school year will be much higher. All of the district’s support service professionals have a caseload that has reached the state’s clinical maximum.

Safe and Supportive Schools Director Lorna Benson believes that the national and local statistics serve as both a wake-up call and a call to action for our communities.

“We sometimes forget when we see data from a national survey that we have children who are experiencing these feelings right here in our community,” Benson acknowledged. “Mental health, especially where kids are concerned, requires open and honest conversations. A proactive approach is important at home, at school, and anywhere else where children feel comfortable enough to discuss their feelings. We must all be willing to talk to our kids to identify if and how we can help them,” Benson added.

Kellie Sims and Brittany Jaco are long-time social workers with the district, having served 20 years and 15 years at Weakley County Schools, respectively.

Jaco and Sims are very thankful for the much-needed additions to the mental health team.

“In all the years that we’ve been in mental health services, we have never seen anything like this. We are truly in the middle of a mental health crisis,” Jaco said. “Bringing on more mental health professionals has been critical. Scott Smiley, Alex Cunningham, and Lindsey Odle joined our team in February 2022, and Megan Cochran and Arlene Autry came on in December 2022. Along with the growth on our team is the growing need in our schools. To say that mental health services are a large need in our schools is a vast understatement,” added Jaco.

Sims says that communication is a vital component.

“Chances are, you’ve heard at least one person express that the pandemic created a kind of shift in our culture where a lot of us stopped communicating, and it established a new habit for some of us. That open line of communication between parents is vital, though, especially in terms of students’ mental health and safety. Kids talk to each other. They often share their problems and challenges with their peers. If we can keep a consistent and open line of communication with our children, we can provide them with support and help them support each other – and we urge everyone to start today,” said Sims.

There are many resources in place to serve those in need of mental health support. The School-Based Behavioral Health Liaison is housed at Greenfield school and is tasked with providing student and family counseling as well as professional development opportunities for staff related to social, emotional, and mental health wellbeing. The program is funded by a Tennessee Department of Mental Health grant awarded to Cary Counseling Center. A Student Assistance Program counselor is a direct services program offered in each building. It is open to all enrolled students as needed, provides individual assessment, offers brief solution-focused therapy and/or group therapy, and makes referrals to community resources as indicated. This program is a contracted service with Carey Counseling Center made possible by SAVE Act funds.

Jaco acknowledged that social workers also address needs of faculty and staff members in the schools.

“Studies are showing that educators are feeling anxious, fearful, worried, overwhelmed and sad,” noted Jaco. “Anxiety tops the list as an emotion that is experienced most frequently. Work-life balance, added expectations in the classroom and at the school, new responsibilities at work, adapting to the changing world, and other added daily pressures have all contributed to these feelings. We want our faculty and staff to know that we are here for them, too,” Jaco noted.

Safe and Supportive Schools Director Lorna Benson urges students and their families, faculty, and staff to take advantage of resources that are available.

“Resources are in place in every school and at the district level. Anyone can report a safety concern 100% anonymously 24/7/365. If you see something, say something. If you suspect someone needs help, even if you are a student and you are worried about a friend, report it. It never hurts to report a concern and it could quite possibly save a life,” said Benson.

According to Betsi Foster, Assistant Director of Schools, social workers and support staff serve a particularly vital role in the school system.

“School social workers and support staff are often the voice for students and families, but this priceless work they do is confidential. Because of that, they are not often celebrated for the value they add to the school community. The 2023 School Social Work Week’s national theme of ‘We Rise’ is fitting because our social workers are continuously rising to meet challenges in support of the growing need for mental health services in our schools. They offer hope for students and their families as well as faculty and staff. The work they do has an impact on our communities that we’ll never be able to truly measure,” said Foster.

To report a safe schools concern, visit, call or text (731) 681-1487, or email [email protected] For additional emotional or mental health reporting, text 988 or call 866-791-9227.

(Erica Moore, Weakley County Schools Communications Director)