School district launches student mental health initiative

Boscobel – The Boscobel Area School District is launching a new initiative to identify students with mental health struggles. A year into planning, the program includes identifying students in the classroom who may be suffering from anxiety, depression or other conditions, as well as regular screening for suicide risk.

According to retired counselor Paul Gasser, who is contracted to assist with the district’s efforts, mental health-related problems are widespread in schools across the state and country.

“Boscobel is not unique,” he said at the school board’s monthly meeting on Nov. 14. We had problems before the pandemic, but I think the pandemic has exacerbated those issues.”

The goal of the program, he stressed, is to provide early intervention—services both within the district and the community—to prevent a crisis.

looking for teachers

The new initiative begins by training teachers to differentiate between typical developmental behavior and more serious mental health concerns. Signs of mental distress can include the obvious, such as self-harm or noticeable depression – but subtle changes such as a significant decline in school performance or unusual behavior can also indicate mental health stress for students.

“Issues like self-harm, aggression. Maybe poor concentration issues,” Gasser said. “We’re asking teachers to pay attention to kids who are in trouble or struggling. Tell us about it and then follow through.”

To that end, Gasser and school staff have developed a quick checklist of about 20 warning signs. Teachers will use the checklist to flag concerned students and refer them to the school counselor. In turn, the counselor may evaluate a student and make recommendations for outside treatment, including medical, social services or, in some cases, the police.

problems are increasing

According to Gesser, as students embark on their first “normal” year since the start of the pandemic, schools are seeing an increase in depression, anxiety and other mental health issues.

Some of this increase is the simple result of overdue medical visits, he said, as the pandemic has reduced or eliminated face-to-face therapy at most clinics. “We did everything by zooming in, and some kids fell off the face of the earth,” he said.

But the return of face-to-face instruction has created additional stressors – in particular, social anxiety.

“We are struggling with children not coming to school, or delay in school, or our children being isolated and withdrawn.” Gasser said. “You would think that the most common mood disorder in public schools is depression. It’s actually not. It’s anxiety. Seventy percent of our kids meet the diagnostic criteria for generalized anxiety disorder. What does this really say?” That we have a lot of kids who are anxious, and sometimes that anxious behavior comes out in the form of acting out behavior.

A Growing Crisis?

As much as Covid-19 is to blame for what many are calling a mental health crisis, the fact is the numbers looked worse earlier in the pandemic. From 2016 to 2019, according to the National Education Association (NEA), the number of children diagnosed with anxiety increased by 27 percent; Depression, by 24 percent. Of people with depression, reports the NEA, two-thirds report that they have not received treatment or support.

According to the NEA, the pandemic, which disrupted relationships that could have helped students in the past, only worsened the picture.

A compelling body of research links mental health struggles among youth to poor academic performance, including poor grades, low graduation rates, high dropout rates, and increased risk for substance abuse.

These problems in adolescence spill over into adulthood, Gasser told the board. “Take a look at the cost to a community of just one person who is never diagnosed,” he said, adding lost wages, alcohol and drug abuse, and even the associated policing and court costs. Pointing out, to say nothing of the human loss, to someone who, with early intervention, may have ultimately contributed more to the community.

suicide screening

The second phase of the district’s plan is to screen all seventh, ninth and eleventh grade students for suicide risk. Gasser said studies show these age groups face increased stress and a higher risk for suicide.

Screening will be a brief questionnaire according to district staff. Based on their answers, the students will either return to class or be sent for immediate counseling.

“Our biggest concern, when I’ve done this in the past, is that we have enough mental health professionals as backup,” Gasser said. “As soon as you open Pandora’s Box, you’re going to be amazed by the number of kids who are going to report, ‘I’m having thoughts of harming myself.'”

Screening will begin in February. Parents will be alerted prior to screening, and a student or their parent may opt out of the program.

Leave a Comment