Nina Kennedy knows the statistics all too well.
Half of all diagnosable mental health conditions begin by the age of 14. One in five adolescents show significant symptoms of emotional distress, and nearly 10 percent of adolescents have symptoms which impair everyday functioning.
“There is a running list of mental and emotional challenges children face,” said Kennedy, clinical director for Gateway Behavioral Services. “Mental health issues can significantly impede a child’s ability in school and have great impacts on levels of achievement during and after school years.”
Kennedy said often the first signs of mental illness or emotional distress appear in school settings, and mental health issues, including attention deficit disorder, anxiety and depression, can be the root cause of poor academic performance, disciplinary issues, and school absenteeism and truancy.
Research shows that behavioral and emotional health issues present significant barriers to learning and academic achievement. The same research shows that mental health interventions are effective and can significantly improve academic performance scores, Kennedy said.
Kennedy is embarking on a new project to provide early detection of children and adolescents with mental health issues and provide guidance.
Now in its pilot season, the Georgia Apex Project has been arranged between Gateway Behavioral Services and the McIntosh County School System.
Gateway, which serves eight regional counties, including Glynn, Camden, McIntosh and Long, promotes the well-being of persons with mental illness, developmental disabilities and addictive disease by providing crisis stabilization, housing, individual and group counseling and psychiatric care.
Set up to be a sustainable community program in coordination with community partners, the Apex project is supported by the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities’ Office of Children, Young Adults, and Families.
The year-round service is available during the school year, as well as during school breaks and throughout the summer, so there is no disruption in services, Kennedy said.
Operated through a local school-based mental health steering committee, which includes district level administration, school personnel, juvenile justice representatives and other representatives from local child and family service organizations, the program can be tapped into for training purposes for teachers, parents, and other interested community members to help identify mental health needs in students, Kennedy said.
The Apex program also provides an up-to-date, local crisis intervention plan, Kennedy said.
Kennedy said the McIntosh County Board of Education and school administration staff were more than willing to let the Apex program gain solid footing before expanding to other counties.
She and Gateway staff will provide direct services to families, including assessments, individual therapy and group therapy sessions. There also will be psychological evaluations by local clinicians and tele-health professionals to help students overcome mental health issues, Kennedy said.
“Basically, we are providing easier and more ready access to mental health care, both after a diagnosis is made and beforehand with early interventions,” she said. “It’s really exciting that we’re able to help families in more rural areas attain these services instead of letting possible mental and behavioral health issues go unnoticed.”
Kennedy hopes to include more coastal communities, particularly those without easy access to mental health care options, she said.
“We’ll review our results each year and see what is working and what improvements we can make,” she said.