Building More Comprehensive Mental Health Systems in Schools

Did you know that nearly 80% of children who need mental health services won’t get them?* The mental health needs of students have recently been called a “hidden crisis” or a “silent epidemic,” but a new initiative underway in Central Alabama is aiming to change that.

With support from the Bold Goals Coalition and the Jefferson County Health Action Partnership, school districts, mental health providers, funders and others have developed a collaborative plan to build more comprehensive school mental health systems. Tarrant City, Blount County and Homewood City Schools have committed to a common plan to enhance mental health training, assessment and services during the next three years. Funding for the pilot project has been provided by the United Way of Central Alabama, the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham and the Blue Cross Blue Shield Caring Foundation.

Last week, participating school districts and partner organizations were invited to a Women United panel discussion focused on the initiative and the mental health issues affecting the youth of Central Alabama. Panelists (pictured here left to right) included Gus Heard-Hughes, Vice President of Programs at the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham; Mary McKenzie, Business Development Director at Gateway; Dr. Shelly Mize, Superintendent of Tarrant City Schools; and Leigh Cohen Long, Director of Guidance for Homewood City Schools. Their varied professions and experiences shaped a progressive perspective on youth, and they shared how a healthy emotional state in children can improve academic outcomes and prevent them from stress and trauma later in life.

During the panel discussion, Gus Heard-Hughes emphasized the importance of comprehensive, effective programs to improve the emotional wellbeing of school children. “When you hear ‘mental health,’ you may think of someone with a diagnosed mental illness. That’s absolutely important in our plan – helping students with diagnosed illnesses. But what we’re really trying to do collectively is create a climate and systems of support that help every student work through the challenges of life that we all face.

Dr. Shelley Mize acknowledged the reality of the situation: “Over the past few years…the number of children who have come to us with mental health issues has risen significantly. Not only has it increased significantly, we’re noticing concerns with children at much younger ages, even at kindergarten.”

Participating school districts will be evaluating the success of the initiative during the next three years, and looking at ways to share best practices and results within the Central Alabama region.

Interested in learning more or engaging with the Health Action Partnership? Please reach out to Kadie Peters, VP of Community Impact for Health at or 205.458.2168.