What is Being Done About Mental Health at VSN?
By Craig Papajohn-Shaw
Volume 1 Issue 5
February 12, 2021
Image provided by HRZone
On Sunday, January 24th The New York Times reported the Clark County school district in Nevada, the 5th largest district in the nation, announced they would begin to allow in-person school for students. With 18 teen suicides of youths between the ages of 15 and 19 (double the number of adolescent deaths by suicide than in 2019) and 3,100 alerts of suicidal searches flagged on the district’s iPad devices from March to December 2020, the school system has linked the online, full-remote period to an increase in students' mental health issues. Additionally, the New York Post reported on February 11th that 12-year-old Hayden Huntstable hanged himself after battling depression amid COVID-19. His father stated he had limited insight on his son's struggles with depression. Hayden’s story demonstrates how crucial it is for mental health issues to be addressed in school so there are outlets available.
Further on the adolescent mental health crisis, according to the American Health Ranking, the global pandemic has resulted in increased suicides. In 2019, the death of adolescents between the ages of 15-19 was 10.2 per 100,000 from suicide, while in 2020, it increased to 11.6 per 100,000 nationwide. These startling statistics would make one think schools would attempt to do anything in their power to reach out to students to provide resources and/or produce a safe outlet for students to talk about their mental issues that may have arisen due to the pandemic. However, Valley Stream North and surrounding school districts alike have taken limited observable action to address the mental health issues resulting from the student-teacher disconnect in the classroom.
The district took the liberty of putting together a Summer Bridge Program to “provide social-emotional resources to the school community” as described on the district’s website. The five-volume newsletter released in the Summer of 2020 provided insight into the “new normal” in the classroom. The district presented some resources on stress management, but has done little to promote the resources to the school community. Since the release of the fifth Summer Bridge issue back on August 28th, the district has not supplied nor advertised flyers and/or meetings to help students cope in this everchanging world.
While the district may be at fault for not providing enough mental health resources to the schools in Valley Stream, each respective school administration has fallen flat regarding raising awareness about the mental health complications evident in their schools. The World Health Organization found half of all mental health conditions start at age 14, but most cases go undetected, unreported, or untreated. As a result, this statistic would make one think addressing mental health issues in schools would be a priority.
The rise in mental health issues, attributed to the pandemic, has also been evident in the classroom environment. In an interview with Spanish teacher Ms. Milazzo-Soto, she expressed, “Students just seem like they’re not enjoying school like they used to. Many appear bored and disinterested. Most seem reluctant to participate and interact with each other.” While she cannot postulate that the disconnect is solely due to the students’ mental state, she does say that more should be done by the administration to address mental health. She does “encourage all students if they are having difficulties [to] reach out to their teachers, guidance counselors, or any other adult in the building.” However, it is difficult to reach out to adults who have not yet introduced themselves. For instance, Valley Stream North employs three school psychologists: Ms. Kehoe, Ms. Christiansen, and Dr. Byrne. However, the failure to introduce themselves would make it difficult for a student to feel comfortable or even know where to talk to the psychologists, regardless of their qualifications.
Prominent staff members generally have not addressed the drastic change in the learning experience which has taken a toll on the mental health of students. A perspective from a student at the school reads, “I feel as though many teachers do not take into consideration how hard it is to be a teenager during these times. We are constantly staring at a screen or being assigned an endless amount of work and this is very mentally taxing on the adolescent brain. Most of us have been forced to put our mental health aside to get all our schoolwork done. The limited outreach by staff has also made it difficult to stay committed to virtual learning. Most teachers do not even respect the ten-minute breaks we received which have been reduced to 5 minutes in the second semester, and most students end up with no break causing them to attend classes back-to-back, and it is not okay.” I reached out to school psychologist Dr. Melissa Byrne and Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction Mr. Christian Bowen to see how they are exactly attempting to address the mental health crisis on a school and district level. However, both did not respond to the opportunity to comment for this article.
My intentions are by no means to solely criticize the school and the district, but rather to shine some light on the issue and how perspectives from teachers and students further prove my claim about the limited action taken to address mental health issues. It is difficult to understand the necessities of students, especially during a time where no one, adult or adolescent, has any prior experience or frame of reference. Solutions that I recommend would be first, for the school psychologists to make an introductory video. This would allow for students to know what they look like and to understand their job descriptions and how specifically they can assist students. Once that is done, the PPS, or Pupil Personnel Services, team should implement an optional mental health survey per grade level to evaluate students’ wellbeing in order to grasp the number of students who may be dealing with mental health issues and then maybe meet with students who are struggling. Lastly, utilizing students’ Outlook emails to send them weekly to monthly emails with links to resources on how to better attend to common mental health issues such as stress management. Students need to know administrators, teachers, guidance counselors, and psychologists care; however, in some instances, staff neglects to convey their care for students' mental well-being.
With suicide being the third leading cause of death by adolescents between the age of 15-19, it is crucial that Valley Stream North emphasizes how the difficult encounters teens may face during the pandemic contribute to mental health and it needs to be addressed.