Diane Peltz – Contributing Writer
The COVID-19 pandemic era ushered in a new set of challenges for youth in the United States, leading to a mental health crisis as declared by the United States surgeon general just over a year ago. But U.S. children and teens have been suffering for far longer. In the 10 years leading up to the pandemic, feelings of persistent sadness and hopelessness—as well as suicidal thoughts and behaviors—increased by about 40% among young people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC). In addition to the social isolation and academic disruption nearly all children and teens faced, many also lost caregivers, had a parent lose their job, or were victims of physical or emotional abuse at home during the lockdowns. All these difficulties, on top of growing concerns about social media, mass violence, natural disasters and political polarization—not to mention the normal ups and downs of childhood and adolescence—can feel insurmountable for those who work with kids. (2023 TRENDS Report)
A Child’s Dilemma
Little Gracie Parker knows all too well how mental health issues and substance abuse affects families. Gracie is a 4th grader at South Macon Elementary School. Gracie was adopted by her grandparents when she was just an infant. Her parents were both substance abusers. Gracie’s mother died from drug use, after falling off a 25 foot dam, when Gracie was only six months old, and her father remains an absent parent due to his substance abuse. At the tender age of nine, Gracie decided to talk to some of her classmates about her parents and she found out that she wasn’t alone. Many of her peers have also experienced some type of trauma due to parents using illegal drugs, deployment, divorce, loss of a family member or even loss of a pet. Gracie found out the hard way, that there was not much help for her, or her peers to deal with the issues they were feeling. It became apparent to Gracie that more counseling in the schools was needed so she set out to help get more trauma counselors back into the schools. Gracie partnered with Stephanie Almeida from Full Circle Recovery. Full Circle assists many local residents who are dealing with using illegal drugs, homelessness and mental health issues. Gracie prepared a speech which she presented at a Harm Reduction Event in town last November. Harm reduction consists of practical strategies and ideas aimed at reducing negative consequences associated with substance use. Harm Reduction also includes advocating for social justice and rights for those who use substances and those suffering from Substance Use Disorder (SUD). Gracie composed a speech and poured her heart out speaking about how her parent’s drug abuse affected her life and the lives of her grandparents, who had to pick up the pieces of Gracie’s broken heart. In her speech she says, “I don’t know why my parents chose drugs over me.”
Her speech touched the hearts of the community and Gracie was offered the chance to go to Washington DC’s to speak. Alexis Pleus, who is the founder of Trail of Truth, offered Gracie the opportunity to speak in Washington in front of the U.S. Capitol. Trail of Truth is a live performance art piece that will honor loved ones, elevate discussions of Substance Use related deaths, and reduce drug related fatalities. Serving as both a memorial and public art installation, the piece will remember those who were lost, while calling government attention to these matters. Pleus, Gracie, her grandfather, and Stephanie Almeida all went to D.C. to voice their message. In front of 40,000 people, Gracie once again poured her heart out begging lawmakers to give the funding needed to get more trauma counselors into the schools. She helped make 125 cardboard tombstones, which she displayed as a backdrop, to represent loved ones who died from drug overdoses. She asked each family to stand by their loved ones’ tombstone. The message was powerful. That same day she again gave her speech on front of the Department of Labor to a large crowd.
During the bitter cold weather in December, Gracie spoke to her principal, Allison Guynn, to explain that she wanted to help the homeless at the warming station that was set up at FUMC. Guynn was on board with Gracie’s plan so she challenged her fourth grade classes to help raise money, to buy blessing bags, by rewarding them with a pizza party. The blessing bags were used at the warming station that opened over the Christmas holiday. The bags contained much needed essential items. Gracie’s class collected enough to make 100 bags.
Gracie says she is not done, not by a long shot. She continues to advocate for more mental health professionals in Franklin and she would like to see her voice heard nationwide. Gracie hopes to speak before Congress and perhaps even the President of the U.S. one day. Gracie says she might run for office when she gets older.
A teacher speaks out
A former teacher from Union Academy (UA), who spoke under the condition of anonymity, speaks about the pros and cons of attending the school.
“I think Union is a good environment for students with mental health issues or other issues. There is a lower teacher to student ratio and they get more attention. The environment is more structured for them and there is less room to be ‘out of sight’ because of the policy of eyes on all the time and the smaller campus.
“As far as resources at UA, there is the Habitudes program. Meridian and other mental health agencies can come to all the schools to pull students for counseling but there was no counselor at Union, not even a guidance counselor, when I was there and I don’t know if that has changed. I do think that overall, the at-risk students benefit from being in an alternative setting. My fear, and part of the reason I no longer work at Union, is that the benefit of the smaller class sizes is dwindling because more and more students were coming and class sizes were getting close to the same as at MMS or FHS. The number of at-risk students is growing faster than the funds to grow a program to support them.
“Another issue I had was that we never had a real understanding of what the criteria for placement at Union was. Mostly, in my opinion, it is a place for any student who consistently disrupts learning at MMS or FHS, or any student who may not graduate with their cohort. The ‘not graduating with their cohort’ means they will not graduate with the group they began school with. Generally, this means the student is at risk for drop-out or failure for some reason but not always. I have seen students sent there for a wide variety of reasons, either for a ‘catch-up’ period or to stay until graduation. I also know of other students who I felt would have benefited from being sent there who weren’t, or not until nearing the end of their high school career. I always wanted there to be a checklist (or something like it) that would lead to a transfer to Union. I knew there would be exceptions but felt that letting parents and students know the process for potential transfer to Union would be helpful.
“I had a child with ADHD and anxiety disorder myself and she was never sent to Union but she had support at home. I think that is what makes the difference. A lot of the mental health issues we dealt with were not being addressed anywhere other than at school or through the juvenile justice system if the student had gotten into trouble. I know, from personal experience, that there are schools with counselors paid for by the school system who are there for the kids and I believe that is a great thing. My other concern, being an educator, is where do we draw the line for what school is responsible for?
“We take on feeding students beyond the school day, helping find mental health, dealing with financial concerns, and the list goes on and on. I know that the people I worked with at Union Academy went above and beyond for their students (as I am sure happens at most schools). We helped with things that had nothing to do with education while they were our students and after graduation. We did it out of love, concern, and respect for our students. We thought of them as our kids, even the ones we didn’t ‘like’ most days in the classroom. We invested in each student in ways far above and beyond teaching a class and maintaining order and I think that is why I, and others, burnt out. You pour so much into your students and then have to see them ‘graduate’ to mobile patrol or death because no matter what you gave you couldn’t overcome their home life. I would like to see some of the responsibility for these kids placed on some other organization than the school system. I think that we need more programs for students to offer mental health, after school programs that are for students who can’t pay or may not have transportation, and somewhere safe, supervised, and fun for teens to hang out.”
The teacher also spoke about the benefits of a smaller campus.
“Franklin High School is a big campus with a lot of outdoor area to walk to and from classes which is where most of the kids that were sent to Union got into trouble. They didn’t as often get into trouble in class as they did on campus between classes or just simply wandering rather than going where they were supposed to go. Now some got into trouble in class as well but the environment at Union is a huge change. The school is small and students are under constant supervision. There is little to no opportunity to get into trouble without getting caught just because of that. Also, the class sizes are smaller so the students get more individual attention. There was always an effort made to involve students in community outreach, service learning, and other things to not only motivate them but to involve them in something outside of themselves. The smaller class sizes also gave me the opportunity to build better relationships with students and that is a help as well. I know that all teachers in all schools in Macon County do this, but Union kids were not always the most open to adults and having fewer students helped break down the barriers sometimes.
“I think that the number of students who have some type of mental health issue or learning disadvantage grows every single year. The pandemic just exacerbated this. I think teachers are overwhelmed with student issues and there is not enough help for the students or the teachers. I know that counselors, even if it is just part time, have been hired at some schools and that is a help. I know that the local mental health agencies have counselors going in and out of the schools working with students and communicating with their teachers to try to help this problem. It isn’t enough and, like I said, I think what we are dealing with is beyond what the school should or can provide support for.” As far as parents who are irresponsible, she says, “My knee jerk reaction is that they should be put in jail and their children should be taken away. Isn’t that simple and seems like an easy answer but it isn’t. If the parents are jailed, then who raises the children? We don’t have enough foster homes as it is and I know of many students who are in the care of overwhelmed and exhausted grandparents and great-grandparents who don’t have the understanding or the resources to manage the scars left by what these children have endured. I think the system, I don’t know what else to call it, needs to help parents get help through agencies like No Wrong Door or [Men’s] Challenge. I think there needs to be more funding for those programs and for others that would help the extended family members with mental health and support for raising these kids.”
Next week: Macon County Schools response to the mental health crisis