The group consisted of more than 33 educators clinicians and counseling professionals from Fort Benning's DODEA schools, the Columbus, Georgia school system, and schools from Phenix City and Fort Mitchell, Alabama. There was also a team from Fort Stewart, Georgia, which came up from southeast Georgia for the event.
"Basically, it's all the counties that have an educational connection or some type of service within our military-connected Families, to include our state partners from the Georgia Department of Education, are represented here today, explained Tony Toliver, Outreach program coordinator for Child and Behavioral Health department at Martin Army Community Hospital"
According to Toliver, the purpose of the seminar was to bring the local community partners in education together to discuss advancing school behavior health.
"It's kind of in line with our ready lines of effort for Mental Health Month, which is observed during the month of May," he explained. "What we've done is brought all of the educators who have impact on our military-connected Families. We've brought them together to talk about the various different services, resources and programs that we can all collaborate on to better impact our Families when it comes to their behavioral health."
Toliver along with Dr. Keith Penska, chief of Child and Family Behavior Health Service at Martin Army Community Hospital, provided the medical representation for the panel. Penska said having a discussion like this is important military Families, as well as all involved parties.
"(It's important because it provides) Access to care," he said. "That's a very important factor. For instance, there are certain Families that may be a one-car Family. If that's the case, then how are they going to get that child to the hospital once a week to receive that care or every other week, which is the usual standard for therapy? It's very helpful to have health resources based in the school because they can pull the kid out during a time where it's not so intrusive to work with the kid."
Penska explained that providing behavioral care within the school system allows the Families to talk to counselors about their school-aged Family member and it also allows the school behavioral health specialists to monitor the student because in most cases, school is where the problem becomes evident.
He said providing care also keeps the student from eventually getting suspended of or expelled.
"By providing this care, we are keeping them in school longer," Penska added. "It also prevents the active duty Soldier from having to miss work, because everything is done during school hours."
"It also increases Soldier readiness," explained Toliver. "We want the Soldier to focus on whatever his or her mission is and know that we're providing for the Family's mental health well-being."
Fort Benning has five schools, four of which are elementary schools and the fifth is a middle school.
Within those schools are two School-based behavioral health specialists, or SBHs. According to Toliver, they are located at Faith Middle School and Stowers Elementary School.
Military deployments and other obligations weigh heavily on military Families. Oftentimes, it is not only the active duty service member who is affected. It affects the Family members who are left behind, as well.
"There's a couple of options that they have. They can talk to their primary care manager or they can contact the Child and Family Behavioral Health Clinic which is at Martin Army Community Hospital," Toliver said. "From there, we can best advise them as to what the recourse is as far as how to get connected to our services."
Toliver added that if the child is a student at one of the aforementioned schools, they will make sure that an appropriate referral is made.
"If they go to one of our clinics, or prefer to be seen off the installation, we can help facilitate that, but we would like for them to give us the opportunity to take care of their Families," he added.
Dr. Mark Weist, Ph.D, who is a professor of psychology at the University of South Carolina, served as guest speaker for the event, which discussed methods and lessons-learned in assisting with and mitigating military-related behavioral problems within the school systems.
Weist also spoke about the importance of having on-site behavioral health specialists within the school system, especially as the U.S. military's deployment rate continues to increase. He said the Army is a great distance ahead of the other services when it comes to providing counseling and behavioral care to its Family members.
Weist knows firsthand about the impact that military deployments can have on Families. Throughout the year, he speaks at most of the nation's largest military installations, including Forts Bragg,N.C.; Fort Carson, Colo.; Fort Hood, Texas; Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash. and several other bases overseas.
"Fort Benning is one of the largest installations in the United States and there are a lot of Soldiers who are in the infantry," Weist said. "We know that deployments are stressful and redeployments are also stressful. In the military, we have people who are doing great things for our country and sacrificing themselves for the country. Those sacrifices have implications for the social, emotional, behavioral and physical health status of themselves, but also for their Family members.
"We're trying to support the Soldiers and their Families through the schools. If the Soldiers is confident that their children are in the best place they can be to learn and that their issues are being supported and getting address, it helps the Soldier focus on what his or her job is," Wiest added.
Weist attributed an increase in suicide rates among school-aged children to a more stressful society, the continuous growth of social media and a faster-paced lifestyle.
"We're seeing more bullying, increases in substance abuse and increasing opioid issues. All of these factors are increasing the need for us to become more proactive in assisting students, Families and Soldiers in being able to cope with those stressors," he added.
Weist pointed out that the Army, out of all of the armed services, is the one that has the most commitment to assisting Soldiers' Families. He said the other services are primarily about mental health support for the service members themselves without really offering much to the children and Families.
"The Army is exceptional in that regard, so we're seeing a lot of support and investment from the Army in this program that started in 2000 with just one installation and a handful of schools. Now we're up to 15 installations and almost 80 schools that are implementing more comprehensive school behavioral health," he said.
"It's all about building relationships," Penska added. "There's a significant portion of military children that go to school off post, so it's good to have contact with them so that we can get the best help for the child," Penska added.