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Polk County teens push for better mental health services in schools

Posted at 7:58 PM, Nov 12, 2019

BARTOW, Fla. -- At least 20,000 students in Polk County will need some type of behavioral intervention this year.

That number is according to the school district’s Behavioral and Mental Health Director who adds that many of those students will go without help.

But, two Bartow High School juniors are working to change that statistic.

Jasmine Burden and Jaqueline Roque are sharing their own experiences in hopes to help other Polk County students like them.

“I myself struggle with mental health,” Jasmine Burden tells ABC Action News she fights anxiety and depression, which is the most common mental health diagnosis in the United States.

Jaqueline Roque says she’s received behavioral intervention in the past and believes shattering the silence could help make the change need in school systems.

“It can’t be hidden anymore because if we hide it, it will just get worse,” Roque said.

Tuesday, the two plan to address the board about their concerns and present a petition which has garnered more than 600 signatures.

Their main goal is to have one mental health counselor per school in Polk County.

“I’m all for it,” Jim Maxwell, a Behavioral and Mental Health Director with the school district

Maxwell says pure awareness about mental health issues is a win, he applauds the girls for spreading awareness about the hotly debated issue.

According to Maxwell, all communities including Polk County are underserved due to access and capacity.

“To really truly deal with all the mental health issues that are out there we need to increase our ability.” He said.

That’s one of Burden’s goals as well. Tuesday, she plans on asking the board to put mental health counselors in every school in the county.

To her surprise, the school board’s legislative stance this year is to advocate for those positions and gain funding from the state. If the mandate would pass, it would entail hiring 150 mental health counselors dedicated to only that role.

Right now, Polk County Public Schools tells ABC Action News it offers counselors, psychologists, social workers, mental health facilities as well as contracting with Bay Care.

But, some also have other duties during the day such as teaching.

Each school also has 10 trained professionals to deal with youth mental trauma emergencies, they are also pulling double duty in the schools.

“We have 10 people in every school and our training is ongoing until we eventually reach all of them,” Jim Maxwell said.

Maxwell added this is the first school year they’ve had a Behavioral and Mental Health department, so the district is able to address more children’s needs.

Last year the district filed away 1,182 risk assessments students went through. 453 students were assessed for threats they made towards themselves or others. And out of 105,000 students 258 of them were Baker Acted from school.

The statistics do not surprise Jasmine or Jaqueline. But that’s why the created the petition, asking for better access and more resources to help other students just like them.

“I feel like I’m doing something good for those around me,” Burden said.

If you’d like to sign the petition, click here.