Mental Health Panel Highlights ‘Dire’ Situation as Local Youth Struggle in Pandemic
At the tail end of a long winter and in what may be the waning months of an even longer pandemic, the mental health pressure of isolation and stress has for many grown, not lessened. Particularly vulnerable to these struggles are young people, who are already more likely to struggle with many types of mental illness, and who are now weighed down by the compounding burdens of almost a full 12 months of the pandemic.
With no road map as to how to how to address these struggles, many local teens are suffering in silence at home or finding inconsistent care, despite the efforts of some advocates.
“It’s a mess,” said Madison Youth & Family Services (MYFS) Director Scott Cochran.
Cochran was one of more than a dozen Madison and Guilford clinical specialists, advocates, students, lawmakers, and educators who took part in a panel this week meant to bring to light some of the barriers youth face when they seek help for mental health struggles during this crisis.
Put together by newly elected State Representative John-Michael Parker (D-101) and co-hosted by State Representative Sean Scanlon (D-99) and State Senator Christine Cohen (D-12), the panel attempted to take a very broad look at solutions and problems facing youth, discussing everything from legislative solutions to everyday peer-led interventions and the struggles of school staff to identify specific issues.
Experts started by making it clear these issues are not any kind of normal adolescent growing pains, and go beyond struggles with schoolwork and remote learning to crisis-level, acute episodes, suicidal ideation, self-harm, eating disorders, and substance abuse.
“In the past, I really hadn’t encountered as many kids who are saying, ‘I want to die,’ and meant it,” said Dr. Michael Garland, a Yale psychiatrist who works with families and young people.
That effort to identify and bring effective solutions to young people fighting mental health battles has a long way to go, according to the experts, as advocates of all kinds try to reach people during the pandemic.
Parker said he hoped the panel was just the first step in what needs to be a continuing push to address these issues, one that won’t go away even when the pandemic begins to fade, adding there was no “magic bullet” that could fix all the disparate needs of local youth.
But many of the panelists, and particularly the students who joined the conversation emphasized that just understanding the degree of suffering and pain that many young people are going through will be an important part of that effort.
Clifford Beers Clinic Director Alice Forrester said Guilford has a “gigantic” problem with homelessness and other underlying stressors within families—things that are not often associated with affluent shoreline communities.
She added that Clifford Beers actually has had fewer referrals, which she called “concerning,” knowing that mental health struggles are on the increase, indicating that many in crisis are not being directed to the proper care.
Others pointed out that less engagement in schools due to restrictions around clubs and extracurriculars as well as less time spent in class, for many students in hybrid or remote learning, means it is harder for teachers and school staff to even know when someone is struggling, or to what degree.
“I’m worried about the kids who are getting Ds and Fs across the board and [also] aren’t responding to our interventions,” said Madison’s Polson Middle School Principal Katherine Hart.
Guilford Youth & Family Services (GYFS) Director Lynne Landry said her organization’s caseload has doubled from years past as she fields two or three calls a day for services.
“The first word that came to my mind is ‘dire,’” she said.
The age range of these young people has also grown according to Landry, with an increase in middle school students affected by acute mental illnesses, particularly suicidal ideation.
Cochran said that at MYFS, the numbers haven’t seen the same kind of precipitous increase in its caseload, but he emphasized that he had already seen a steady increase in mental health issues before the pandemic related to school pressures, economic and family struggles, and many other issues.
“It requires a very comprehensive approach, this isn’t a one size fits all,” he said. “This is, we all need to be looking at prevention and what kind of programs are on the front end, integrated in the school days, integrated in the community, concepts of wellness that are so critical and really undervalued.”
Those kinds of measures are going to need to continue after the pandemic, he added, when people return to “whatever the hell normal is.”
Schools and Solutions
The panel spent a good amount of time focusing on schools, with principals from Polson Middle School and Daniel Hand High School (DHHS) in Madison and Adams Middle School and Guilford High School (GHS) in Guilford all offering their thoughts and the programs that have worked for their schools.
DHHS student Ben Sisk lauded his school for its commitment to teens’ mental health, with programs like “Wellness Wednesday” and consistent access to counselors in the building.
“It show[s] to me that they really care about how we’re feeling. We’re not just a number in the gradebook,” he said.
A DHHS student committed suicide earlier this year, and Sisk said he felt the district’s response showed they were prioritizing student’s mental wellbeing in the days, weeks, and months following that tragedy.
GHS Principal Julia Chaffe lauded the “Say Something” program, an app adopted in the district in 2018 that allows students to anonymously report concerning behaviors in classmates, something that is particularly important as a tool when it might be harder to reach trusted adults directly during hybrid or remote learning.
“It’s made a huge difference in what gets reported to us,” she said. “When kids are worried about their friends, they use the app. We do wellness checks with kids regardless of whether it’s during school hours or not. We have a great relationship with the Guilford Police Department...If we’re worried about a student we can get help to them right away.”
Peer-led mental health focused groups and task forces involving students have been adopted or re-emphasized in both Madison and Guilford, with these programs lauded by both students and administrators on the panel.
But even in the schools there continue to be tremendous struggles to reach students during a pandemic, with panelists discussing just how challenging it is to build relationships and trust under the circumstances.
“The number-one complaint that teachers are having is disengagement and just not being able to grab a hold of kids, and feeling like kids are just not connected,” said Adams Middle School Principal Mike Regan. “A lot of people refer to schools as the first responders for kids...You can tell a lot of what’s going on with a kid just by eyeballing, and it’s very different when you’re trying to do that eyeball on the computer.
“The other piece that I think is very, very difficult for young people is, there’s no break in the bad news,” he added. “We’re coming up on a year. It’s been the cumulative effect of negative portrayal and constant news barrage, and I just worry about how that wears people down.”
Regan said he was particularly concerned about students who had never had contact with mental health services and are experiencing feelings of despair or anxiety for the first time and might be less comfortable reaching out.
Garland and others said there was also evidence that young people will absorb anxiety and other negative feelings from parents, meaning the longer-term economic and social effects of the pandemic will continue to be felt in youth populations even when schools reopen.
As far as solutions, many advocated for ways that students can reach out to other students, with discussion about various programs or methods for peers to identify when their friends are struggling. DHHS Principal T.J Salutari said he wanted to do a better job letting students know that “it’s okay not to be doing okay.”
“I don’t think we’ve given them that permission to share that with us,” he said. “We have to open up different avenues...We have to help students identify that they’re not doing well and let them know it’s okay, and then give them various channels to report and share concerns they have for themselves or others.”
“We need more and more opportunities for kids to be able to connect in a school setting again,” said Hart.
If you or if someone you know is considering suicide or other forms of self-harm, call The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
Madison residents with other mental health concerns can reach out to Madison Youth & Family Services at 203-245-5645. Guilford residents can call Guilford Youth & Family Services at 203-453-8047.