19th St. Magazine Article: MPS Mental Health Access

Written by Callie Collins for 19th St. Magazine, March 2022 

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought mental health concerns to the forefront throughout our community, including for students of all ages. Although mental health is an issue for every individual, just like physical health, the need for related services and interventions has increased.

Economic instability, feelings of isolation during quarantine, the threat of illness and looming uncertainty take a toll.Dr. Kristy Hernandez

“For a lot of our families, everyone’s been living in this perpetual world of the unknown,” said Moore Public Schools Director of Student Services Dr. Kristy Hernandez. “There have been so many questions. Is the next variant stronger? How will it affect us? We’ve been surrounded by death and there has been division that’s come out of that. Our society is in a constant argument state.”

The role of the internet and social media is also a contributing factor.

“Our kids have so much access to information now, including adult information,” Hernandez said.

The legalization of marijuana also took place just before the pandemic began, a factor Hernandez mentioned as contributing to children’s increased access to the substance at home.

“We are absolutely seeing drug use at younger ages. Everything has culminated at this point,” she explained. “There is an uptick in the need for services across the board. School therapists are serving as many students as possible and our faculty and staff now have access to services, too.”

Moore Public Schools has worked to address students’ mental health needs, which were pressing even before the pandemic and have only become more acute in light of current events.

“There’s a lot people are dealing with,” said Hernandez. “Our goal within schools is to stay as consistent as possible by trying to stay open and continue to offer all that schools do. Students rely on their school for food, warmth, support and more.” Christy Ellis and Nakita

Currently, the district employs 14 mental health professionals, including eight recently added. A grant opportunity through the Oklahoma State Department of Education’s School Counselor Corps at the beginning of the pandemic helped make their positions possible by providing half of the related funding, while the district covered the other half from Title IV monies.

“We will reassess at the end of the three years the grant provides but the need will likely continue. I can see growth in this program instead of decline,” Hernandez said. 

Additional counselors were placed at five of the district’s 25 elementary schools based on size and student needs, along with an additional career counselor and a recreational therapist. Mental health has been a priority for the district for several years, which was a forerunner in adding mental health services outreach in 2018, starting with three licensed therapists. Additional counselors for Moore’s three high schools were added before the pandemic, a valuable asset to already have in place in February 2020 when three Moore High School runners were killed by a hit-and-run driver.

Creating an Employee Assistance Program was also key for Moore Public Schools so teachers can address their own needs, including work and home situations. “For teachers and staff going through a rough patch, an Employee Assistance Program is ideal,” said Hernandez.

A building no longer in use was retrofitted so employees can leave their school sites and receive confidential services through six to eight sessions with referrals for next steps if needed.

Future plans include summer camps that are grant funded and starting more group sessions throughout the school year. The district also trains staff members on how to work with kids in hard places, including the Trust-Based Relational Intervention methods by Dr. Karyn Purvis, who is best known for the Karyn Purvis Child Development Institute at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth.

“I wish people would not stigmatize mental health issues and if your child needs services, know there are resources available for them,” Hernandez encouraged.

All parents, caregivers and guardians of Moore Public Schools students receive “Family Connection,” a monthly newsletter with tips and information. Parents can also find a list of resources at mooreschools.com. –19SM