BLOUNT COUNTY, Tenn. (WVLT) -- Three students at a Blount County elementary school were placed on a suicide watch. School officials said a teacher, teacher's assistant, or counselor will be with the student at all times for their safety. It's just one snap shot of a much bigger problem of children developing behavioral issues at a young age.
Blount County Schools created a mental health committee in the Fall of 2018 as a group of district and school administrators, special education professionals, school counselors, psychologists and the coordinated school health team.
Blount County Schools Communication Director Marla Holbert said the committee was formed from principal feedback to the Blount County Director of Schools. Holbert said the principal's feedback to the director encouraged the school system to create the committee.
"The principal's role is to be academic leaders for their schools, but they were struggling because of a dramatic increase in the number of discipline issues they are faced with on a daily basis," Holbert said in an email to WVLT. "The discipline issues include disruptive classroom behaviors, students who are not prepared to enter kindergarten (socially), and those diagnosed with mental illnesses at the elementary level."
Holbert speculated that many of the difficulties children are having at school could stem from parents who are addicted to opioids as the drug crisis continues to build. Holbert, however, could not confirm this as the cause.
"While we do not fully know why this is happening, we expect the trend to increase within the next few years," Holbert said.
“That’s something we are just beginning to discover is what kind of issues do these children face," Mary Beth Blevins, the schools' health coordinator, said. "Because we’re very new into this process. If we’ve got a wave of these children coming, we’re just at the beginning.”
"We heard from the school systems that there was a need because of a huge amount of behaviorally dis-regulated children entering the school system," Carrie Pernesky said.
Pernesky is the program coordinator for 'Grow With Me'. The clinic opened at East Tennessee Children's Hospital nearly three years ago and is designed to help babies born drug-dependent.
Experts said these children can show signs of sleeping trouble, mood swings, and overreacting.
"A child that, instead of getting angry, becomes explosive with anger," Patty Zetterberg, a nurse practitioner, said.
According to Zetterberg those children are now entering the classroom, an issue stretching beyond Blount County Schools.
Blevins said it has a ripple effect on the entire classroom. “We've had to stop teaching all together and have the rest of the class do some other activity in order to help this child who’s having a behavioral issue," she said. "Or we just remove the entire classroom out to the playground or the hallway to do something else to keep the child having that issue safe.”
Zetterberg said this is heartbreaking because it is preventable. "If a woman of child-bearing age doesn't use substances, then your baby will not have NAS when they're born," she said.
"The problem stretches beyond hard drugs. Even prescribed medication with an opioid base can leave children with withdrawal symptoms," Zetterberg said.
'Grow With Me' Clinic uses psychologists and counselors to intervene with children at a young age, from 0 to 5 years-old. They currently serve more than 200 patients and expect that number to grow by 100 every year as the opioid epidemic persists.
Blount County Schools said they are being proactive with the issue. Last Fall, they formed a Mental Health Committee. They presented to the school board Thursday, recommending increased counselors and psychologists on staff and curriculum designed to address social issues in the classroom.