Lincoln Parish makes mental health commitment to schools

Lincoln Parish has become a state leader in proactively addressing mental health within the school system.

By Malcolm Butler

Junior high is a difficult age. 

And no one knows that better than Ruston Junior High School principal Keisha Douglas. 

In her second year at RJHS, Douglas has seen the effects that Covid had on her students during an almost two-year stretch. 

“Junior high itself – with Covid, without Covid – is so challenging,” said Douglas. “It’s a difficult stage. They are trying to figure out their right, their left. After Covid, I think it just magnified some of the issues they were already facing.”

March of 2020 saw the nation – and the world – shut down. Businesses. Schools. Facilities. Entertainment. 

And it had a direct impact on the majority of the country in numerous ways. Now more than two years later, although Covid isn’t the overriding direct threat it once was, it still is having negative indirect effect on so many young people.

“Prior to Covid you had kids dealing with trauma at home,” said Douglas. “Then when we went through Covid, the kids were forced to be at home. Pre-Covid the school was kind of a safety zone for some of them. But during Covid there was no safety zone. We definitely saw an increase of mental health issues coming back.”

Fortunately for our area, Lincoln Parish Schools are leading the charge in the state of Louisiana,  proactively trying to help all of the school children (from kindergarten through 12th grade) cope with the stresses of this chapter of their life. 

Starting last year, Lincoln Parish hired full-time professional mental health counselors for every school in the parish. 

“We knew we needed to do something,” said Lincoln Parish School Board Superintendent Ricky Durrett. “We wanted to try to help kids come back to school and deal and cope with everything we know they have really struggled with, really what’s going on in our country. A lot of them are dealing with the loss of loved ones and so many other things. We just wanted to be proactive and be there for our kids.”

Durrett said that it took an approximate $750,000 annual investment to fund the full-time positions. The funding comes from stimulus money that will run through the 2023-24 school year, at which point, Durrett hopes to find other avenues.

“Once the stimulus money runs out, we are not sure how we are going to fund it,” said Durrett. “We will get to a point where we see what’s going on. Personally I am hoping with as much emphasis as there is on mental health in the country, that there will be some more funding coming to help keep mental health counselors in schools.

“We don’t know whether it will come through federal grants or if our state will fund it, but we do hope there will be some additional funding for mental health counselors so we can continue the program.”

Lincoln Parish is not the norm within the state. 

“I think we are well ahead of the curve on how we have addressed mental health in our school system,” said Durrett. “I think we are one of the most proactive school systems in the state. There may be a few others, but I don’t think there’s many that I’ve made the commitment that Lincoln Parish has.”

Prior to Covid, the school district had only three full-time mental health professionals for the entire parish. 

“We are really fortunate that we have that type of support in our schools,” said Becky Stutzman, pupil appraisal coordinator for Lincoln Parish Schools. “We have had a mental health presence for a while, but not to this extent. We are fortunate that Mr. (Mike) Milstead and Mr. Durrett saw the need for supporting mental health in our schools.

“The state tasked us with putting things in place to support the kids. Fortunately we got buy-in from the top down and from our community.”

Douglas agrees.

“I think Lincoln Parish is setting the trend by prioritizing academics of course but also by recognizing mental health is just as important, if not more important, for these kids.”

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