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Prioritizing student mental health: advocating for comprehensive support in Arkansas schools

African American black girl student doing an exam at elementary school. Adorable young girl children sitting indoors on table, feeling upset and depressed while learning with teacher at kindergarten.
More than 470,000 students are enrolled in K-12 schools in Arkansas, according to the Arkansas Department of Education Data Center.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month and a national education advocacy group wants school districts in Arkansas to continue focusing on and investing in critical mental health support.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in 2021 more than a third of high school students said they experienced poor mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Denise Forte, president and CEO of The Education Trust, said the top concern for parents, communities, and teachers is school safety and students' mental health. She added as a result of the pandemic, they have seen the rate of students' mental health issues increase.

"In states like Arkansas, students have had a really hard time accessing mental health services," Forte pointed out. "One of the things we also know is that student rates of suicide are going up. The terrible stats there say that one in five has seriously considered suicide, and one in 10 has actually attempted suicide."

Forte argued the statistics prove more works need to be done. She added federal funds can go a long way, but the real concern is whether they are being spent effectively. She believes it is important for students to have access to psychologists, counselors, and social workers to help foster social, emotional, and academic development.

Forte contended one way to address students' mental health needs is by making sure they have a culturally relevant curriculum.

"That's really important, which is why it was equally important to have courses on African American experiences," Forte explained. "We think that is a really important course that more students should have access to, not less. And it's not just about history, it's about the full African American experience."

Forte noted The Education Trust culturally relevant in Arkansas and across the country to more effectively support the social, emotional, and academic development of all students, which she emphasized means everything from making sure students feel a sense of belonging, to having strong social and emotional support in the classroom.

Danielle M. Smith is an award-winning radio journalist/personality with more than a decade of experience in broadcast media. Smith is a former audio journalist with American Urban Radio Networks and Sheridan Broadcasting Networks. She is currently joining PNS as a producer. She also hosts a weekly community affairs show “Good News” on Power 1360 WGBN AM 1360 & 98.9FM in Pittsburgh, PA. Smith sits on the Communications board for the Functional Literacy Ministry of Haiti 501 ©(3). Smith recently took a leap of faith and relocated to Nashville TN.
A statewide non-profit news service for Arkansas. Based in Little Rock as a bureau of the Public News Service.