ALAMANCE COUNTY, N.C. (WGHP) — School counselors are emphasizing the growing need to focus on mental health in the classrooms three years after the start of the pandemic.

“We are intervening too late. We have to go upstream,” said Meredith Draughn, a counselor at B. Everett Jordan Elementary School.

Draughn was named the 2023 national counselor of the year.  

Governor Roy Cooper paid a visit to the school on Tuesday to see her work and talk about the importance of counselors in schools.

“Teachers are so busy trying to teach, they sometimes wonder, ‘how can I solve this problem for this child?” Cooper said.  “That’s where a counselor comes in.”

FOX8 sat down with Draughn to talk about her approach to tackling the issues.

“Mental health is health, and I don’t think we’ve explicitly taught that in schools, but we’ve seen those things pop up, and if we don’t catch it early on, that’s when the problem arises,” Draughn said.

Other district leaders in the Triad believe emphasizing mental health is the way to keep kids safe and keep them from turning to violence.

“We’re seeing, as we talked about school safety and an increase in aggressive behavior, a lot of that could be linked to mental health concerns,” said Dr. Whitney Oakley, superintendent of Guilford County Schools.

The pandemic has been blamed for the increase in aggressive behavior and anxiety.

“There are students that are having real struggles, and it plays out in our classrooms in terms of safety. It’s a microcosm of our whole community,” Oakley said.

“When you have a normal type idea of life, and then that shifts very abruptly, and you’re six, seven, eight years old, that’s tough to deal with,” Draughn said.

Both Guilford County and Alamance County counselors are seeing a spike in the number of kids asking for help.

Before the pandemic, Draughn worked with 15 kids one-on-one every week. The number has now doubled.

Oakley has used funds to hire more mental health professionals for one-on-one opportunities with students.

“Our ratio to school psychologists here is one to 1,416, and we know the need is more than that,” Oakley said.

For the kindergarten through fifth graders Draughn works with every day, she’s making emotional intelligence a core piece of education much like math or science.

“If you’re starting when the problem is already pretty severe, we need to backtrack a little bit and see how did we get here,” Draughn said.

She also emphasized how important community support is. 

Draughn encourages people to volunteer or reach out to their local school district. She says one strong connection with an adult can change a kid’s life.