by Dr. Gladys I. Cruz
District Superintendent

Each year, during the first week of October, we raise awareness of mental health through Mental Illness Awareness Week (MIAW). This year’s observance centers around a new awareness campaign, “Together for Mental Health.” To me, this theme is fitting given the impact of the global pandemic on students and adults alike and how we need to come together to support each other.

Prior to the pandemic, there were increased mental health needs locally and across the state. In fact, according to the CDC’s 2019 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, 1 in 3 high school students reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness and 1 in 6 reported that they had made a suicide plan in the past year. This marked a 40 percent increase over the previous decade.

Reports indicate that mental health concerns among our youth have increased during the past 20 months. In fact, the American Psychological Association (APA) reports 81 percent of teens age 13-17 have experienced more intense stress during the pandemic. The CDC also found that U.S. emergency room visits for children aged 5-11 and 12-17 years increased by double digits during pandemic compared to previous years.

Indeed, the need to provide additional mental health and wellness services to our youth has been amplified during the pandemic due to the spread of the more contagious Delta variant and anxiety about returning to school.

When our students come to school, they may often bring invisible, but heavy burdens such as anxiety, traumatic grief, pressure to achieve, emotional abuse, bullying, food or economic insecurity, homelessness, and other situations exacerbated by the pandemic.

This makes it important for educators and others to establish positive working relationships with students, so that we get to know them and their needs (as well as recognize those instances where the students may not seem themselves). It is also important for students to know that they can turn to an adult to talk as they may not have developed the coping skills to handle the range of feelings or experiences they are facing today.

According to the Mental Health Association in New York State, about 1 in 5 students ages 13 to 18 experience some form of serious mental disorder. In a classroom of 25, that means five of those students can be living with anxiety, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism spectrum disorders, depression, Tourette syndrome or other mental health issues.

Perhaps more troubling, only about 40 percent of those with a mental illness seek treatment, and half of those who do wait an average of 10 years from the time they begin experiencing symptoms before getting help.

For far too long, mental illness has been a silent epidemic. Several years ago, New York State schools integrated mental health education into their health education curriculum as part of state law. This includes looking at students’ social and emotional needs in addition to their academic needs, including relationship-building, decision-making, confidence, coping, and controlling their emotions.

While some may disagree over what to best call or structure this type of learning, most will agree on the importance of these life skills. Ultimately, all school staff play a role in ensuring the social and emotional well-being of our students. After all, it is difficult for students to focus on core academic subjects if these needs are not first being met, and these skills are often first modeled at home.

I encourage parents to understand how to access the resources available through the county, the state or elsewhere. Within our region, I have convened meetings of the county mental health departments, school superintendents and others to discuss the importance of a coordinated approach when it comes to mental health. We serve many of the same families and as a BOCES, one of our goals is to build capacity for our districts, allowing them to do together what may be difficult to do alone.

While schools are uniquely positioned to identify and address these student needs, they also need additional support to fulfill this growing area of concern. We look forward to working with our districts, mental health professionals, the state, our families, and others to address this growing need and to provide our students with the experiences and skills that will allow them to grow and thrive.

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