Mental health challenges for students topic of summit

  • Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan speaks Wednesday at the Eighth Annual Safe & Healthy School Summit, which addressed the issue of mental health challenges of students in primary and secondary schools. STAFF PHOTO/MARY BYRNE

Staff Writer
Published: 11/18/2020 6:07:36 PM

School and mental health professionals met Wednesday morning for the Safe and Healthy School Summit for a discussion on ways to mediate the mental health challenges faced by students in the community.

“So much has changed since we first started planning this,” said Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan, noting that when they began a year ago, the first topic that came to mind among planners was mental health needs of students. “When we look at where we are today, we never could have imagined how this pandemic would affect students and also the community as a whole.”

The three-hour discussion Wednesday morning — which brought together school administrators, school nurses, teachers, counselors and psychologists — addressed the mental health challenges young people are facing and the ways they can be supported. 

The summit, which was presented by the Northwestern District Attorney Office, was originally set for the spring, but was rescheduled to an virtual format due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The event was co-sponsored by the Collaborative for Educational Services, SPIFFY and Communities that Care coalitions, and the Quaboag Hills Substance Use Alliance.

“How timely this is to get an insight into how we can deal with the stressors that are with students, and to try to move forward with some really good ideas and plans for addressing mental health needs,” Sullivan said. 

Following Sullivan’s opening remarks, Jordan Burnham, a nationally recognized mental health speaker and advocate, spoke to the more than 100 people on the call about his own experience as a student with depression. 

“I was diagnosed with depression at 16,” Burnham said. “I didn’t know what that meant because my friends and I would say ‘depressed,’ ‘depression,’ (and) ‘depressing’ so much, that I didn’t know what the difference was.”

When he speaks to students, Burnham said, he explains that anyone, at any point in time, can “feel depressed.”

“For me, someone having depression, I can wake up one day and have no idea (why),” he explained.

Burnham started seeing a therapist in 10th grade. In his junior year of high school, at the same time he was struggling with the pressures of school, he was also having trouble with friends and his girlfriend. That year, he was admitted to a behavioral hospital.

“I always have to remind my students that I still have to take care of myself … especially during this time period,” he said. 

Factors

Meghan Harding, the family engagement specialist for the Bridge for Resilient Youth in Transition Network and a senior lecturer at Smith College School for Social Work, shared the factors currently affecting the mental health of students — the COVID-19 pandemic, election-related anxiety, and racial trauma. 

“A huge number of mental health issues in young people are undetected and untreated,” she said. “If we tie that back to, again … how do we help students understand what a school counselor is, and what’s possible there?”

She said the global health pandemic has changed the way we do things — go to school, go to work. 

“If last year … mental health in schools, the rhythm in schools, looked so different than it does now, what does that invite us to consider?” Harding asked. “Part of what that says is, we can do things differently. These aren’t ideal conditions, but we were able to pivot.”

When Sara Neuenschwande, a guidance counselor at Mohawk Trail Regional School, asked Burnham how school staff can better encourage students to share their stories so that, like him, they can get help they need, he spoke to the idea of “normalizing” talk therapy.

“I think normalizing the idea of talking to a counselor is the biggest one,” he said, adding that it also helps for students to know the difference between depressed versus depression. “We never heard from our school psychologist. Our counselors were only there for academic reasons. We had a school psychologist I did not know until my junior year, when I got back from the behavioral hospital.” 

He said the school psychologist was someone all students should be made aware of when they’re welcomed to a high school. 

“I wish I would have known I could have talked to my counselor on a good day,” he said. “Now, I remind students I still see my therapist in a good time period, when things are going well.”

‘Mental health literacy’

At Four Rivers Charter Public School in Greenfield and the Pioneer Valley Performing Arts Charter Public School in South Hadley, students are already beginning to better understand mental health challenges and how to recognize them in their peers. 

“The goal of Teen Mental Health First Aid is to help young people recognize the signs of a mental health or substance abuse challenge in their peers,” said Kate Allen of PVPA’s school counseling department.

Teen Mental Health First Aid is a training program that aims to teach teens about common mental health challenges, along with how to support their own mental health and how to help out a friend.

Bill Fogel, a psychologist at Four Rivers, said since the program was implemented in 2018, he has seen an increase in “mental health literacy.”

“Teens are not learning how to diagnose,” Fogel clarified. “That’s not what first aid is. In the same way that in first aid, we’re not going to diagnose medical conditions, we’re not going to diagnose medical conditions (or) health conditions in mental health first aid.” 

Allen said the program is designed for students in 10th to 12th grade.

"We want friends to be equipped to help each other get the right support,” she said.

Mary Byrne can be reached at mbyrne@recorder.com or 413-930-4429. Twitter: @MaryEByrne.




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