County “making headway” on mental health care in schools

(Photo Source: Unsplash).

Following tragic events in Buffalo and Uvalde, Texas, both of which yielded several victims of gun violence, Cortland County officials gathered last week for a discussion on mental health at county schools during the County, City, Towns, Villages and Schools (CCTVS) Advisory Board meeting.

The discussion was brought on by city of Cortland mayor Scott Steve, who noted he has met with Cortland Enlarged City School District and Cortland City Police Department officials to discuss safety in schools. Steve’s discussion follows the recent deadly school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, where at least 21 people were slain. Nineteen of the victims were elementary school children. The mayor also referenced a racially-motivated massacre that yielded 10 dead at a Tops grocery store in Buffalo on May 14.

“I’m trying to get ahead of the travesties we have seen in Texas and Buffalo. I wanted to get together as a community to try and educate people,” Steve said. “Everybody deals with depression internally, some of us can handle it better than others, but we are all dealing with it.”

As people face mental health issues, Steve said, it has become more important than ever to provide government resources to communities in need.  

“(From an interagency, interschool standpoint) we need to do more to be on top of these issues, and to educate, communicate, and do better as a county in helping police these issues,” he added.

Legislator Sandra Price (D-LD-14), who chairs CCTVS, asked about potential next steps.

“But what do we do besides talking about these issues?,” Price said.

For Steve, the answer lies in getting community leaders together.

“We need to get our community partners together toward more community activities, raise awareness, and work on prevention of these mental health issues,” Steve said. He noted that the county could bring partners from SUNY Cortland, Tompkins-Cortland Community College, and Guthrie Cortland Medical Center together.

At the local schools level, McGraw Central School District Superintendent Melinda McCool said she has already met with the superintendents of all the school districts in Cortland County.

“In meeting with my colleagues, the proactive approach with mental health is paramount and we are way behind on that in the county,” McCool said, also speaking on mental health staffing at schools. “The County Mental Health Department and Department of Social Services (DSS) don’t have the manpower to fill the needs we have currently. The personnel turnover has been (staggering) as well.”

In McGraw, staffing has been an issue this year.

“We haven’t had a full-time mental health professional for the entire school year,” McCool said. “Of all years, this is when we need them.”

McCool said the district hired two school psychologists and has been employing three guidance counselors to shore up staffing needs.

“We are in need of that additional counseling,” she said. “We need our community partners to help. There are preventative measures that help protect us from these catastrophes.”

As for the county as a whole, Price asked for a status update on where additional staffing for mental health services in schools currently stands. Last year, the county awarded $100,000 in funds to the County Mental Health Department to hire new staff for their behavioral health programs at schools

“There is a shortage of staff just like with our Mental Health Department and DSS,” County administrator Rob Corpora said in response to Price’s question. “We are doing everything to hire people, raising wages, changing titles, and providing more flexibility for workers. We are making headway, but we are not anywhere near fully staffed. It is not because we are not trying.”