Hillsborough schools step up mental health services as student need rises

Tampa Bay Times | By Marlene Sokol | October 12, 2022

Two initiatives will make information more readily available to students who need it.

School officials in Hillsborough County are enhancing their mental health outreach efforts in response to alarming numbers of students who are having difficulties.

The district on Wednesday announced two new and related measures: a centralized information source on Clever, the web platform students use for their classes, and brochures on key topics that will be displayed in all middle and high schools.

District staff created the materials, for grades 6 through 12, in consultation with a student advisory committee. Surveys and committee members told them anxiety was an overriding issue, as well as peer and social conflicts.

Despite the availability of 850 counselors, social workers and school psychologists, students were not always coming forward to get help, officials said.

“Students access information differently than we do these days,” said Maggie Dean, a student services quality assurance manager. “So that’s why we’ve pivoted. We wanted to be visible with paper, QR codes, as well as on that electronic media. We wanted to make sure that students are connected.”

The brochures, printed in English and Spanish, were funded by Hailey’s Voice of Hope, a nonprofit organization that was established by a family who lost a teen to mental illness. They cover mental illness, stress, bullying, sexual harassment and suicide prevention.

The website information system, called Hillsborough Assist, was created with existing district resources.

In the last academic year, schools screened more than 20,000 students for assistance, superintendent Addison Davis said. That works out to roughly 1 in 10 students in the district.

Of those, 17,500 needed additional services, often outside the schools, Davis said. About 200 expressed serious feelings that they would harm themselves.

It is difficult to know the degree to which student mental health is deteriorating, as public awareness has prompted more children and adults to speak out. Statistical measurements are also difficult because COVID-19 kept many students home the previous two school years.

But the numbers were high enough to sharpen schools’ focus on the issue.

School violence in recent years has also been a call to action. State law now calls for threat assessment teams in all Florida schools. More than 1,100 Hillsborough school employees have been trained in threat assessment, and 12,000 have been trained in youth mental health first aid.

Davis said it is clear that COVID-19 was a contributing factor to problems such as anxiety and social isolation.

But, he said, “our community is now contending with a new pandemic, which is our children’s mental health.”

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