Early intervention key to combatting youth mental health issues
Faced with a growing number of students with mental illnesses, Danbury-area districts are embracing new tools, resources and programs that tackle social and emotional learning during the school day.Most districts emphasize an approach that teaches students to understand and regulate their emotions, while developing positive relationships. Some schools have also hired more staff to help tackle the issue.“We should respond to mental health issues the same way we respond to physical issues, like a broken leg or a crushed rib,” said Thomas McMorran, superintendent for Easton, Redding and Region 9. “Get the child to a health care professional and de-stigmatize anything associated with mental wellness.”One in five teens have or will have a serious mental illness, while suicide is the third-leading cause of death in youth 10 to 24, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.Meanwhile, the rates of youth with severe depression have increased to 8.2 percent from 5.9 percent over five years, according to Mental Health America’s 2018 report.Danbury school leaders said they are reviewing the district’s programs for supporting students struggling with mental health issues after the suicide of city teen Hailey Nailor last weekend.A complex problemA Mental Health America report ranks Connecticut 18th in the country for youth reporting at least one major depressive episode in the past year and 22nd for youth coping with severe major depression.Local educators said it is hard to provide figures on the amount of students with mental health needs because the state does not require them to submit this information, and these students can be categorized in various ways.“It’s fair to say there is more anxiety in our culture and therefore in our student bodies,” McMorran said. “It may be that we’re simply better at picking up on cues and taking childhood maladies seriously.”Increased pressures from school and families and those that arise from students’ social media presence could also be factors in the rise, educators said.More students are also experiencing trauma — whether that be witnessing a grandfather die or a physical fight between parents, said Maureen Ruby, the Brookfield assistant superintendent.“We have to sit back and take time to see what is going on in a child’s life,” said Ruby, who is attending a conference this weekend on the subject. “Even if we don’t know what the story is, there are strategies adults should be implementing in classrooms and in other areas of school that make it a more comfortable, embracing environment for kids that are coming with trauma.”It is more common for children to be diagnosed with depression or anxiety as they grow older, but Danbury-area schools said elementary-age students are also showing signs of mental illnesses.“Even statewide and nationally, we’re not prepared for those really young ones coming in with mood disorders,” said Laura Olson, director of pupil personnel and special services in New Milford.She added the district has a licensed clinician working specifically with kindergarten through second grade.Newtown, meanwhile, is piloting a mental health program at the elementary level.“This is a conversation we realize needs to start younger, just to start providing students with the strategies and the coping skills,” said Deborah Mailloux-Petersen, director of pupil services. “Sometimes it’s too late if you wait until middle or high school years.”A proactive approachNailor’s suicide has put a spotlight on mental health, but educators and advocates say schools are always trying to be proactive to prevent similar tragedies.Teachers and staff are trained to recognize when students might be battling mental health issues.In younger students, these signs include boundary issues or emotional outbursts, McMorran said. For older students, what they say and don’t say could key adults into an issue, he said.“It’s really about strong relationships that are healthy and caring between the adults and children in the building,” McMorran said.Districts such as Bethel, New Milford and Newtown use scientific research-based intervention to identify students who are withdrawing or acting out, which could be red flags.“It should be an ongoing thing,” said Debbie Berman, a Brookfield mental health advocate whose daughter Alexa died by suicide more than 10 years ago. “It can’t just be that you react when it happens.”Berman has worked over the years to raise mental health awareness among teens and adults and helps lead a support group for parents of children with mental illnesses. She is now working with administrators in Brookfield schools to hold an event for youth and parents.Bethel and Newtown also train staff on the “Question, Persuade, Refer” method to recognize signs and prevent suicides.Newtown has had more success with an anonymous tip line where students can report concerns they have about their friends, Superintendent Lorrie Rodrigue said. “That is important because students often have a lot more information than adults in these cases,” she added.Social and emotional learningBrookfield introduced a social and emotional learning approach called RULER at Whisconier Middle School this year and is training staff and teachers at the elementary schools to implement the approach next year.Developed at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, RULER asks students to recognize, understand, label, express and regulate their emotions. This method targets all students, not just those who are struggling.“We’re really approaching this at a classroom level, at a district level,” said Christine Sipala, director of pupil personnel services in Brookfield. “This impacts all kids. This is all about prevention.”As part of RULER, middle school students create classroom “charters” establishing how they want to feel and what they could do to feel that way, Sipala said. The students also use a tool called a “mood meter” that helps them identify their emotions and strategize how to feel better, she said.Staff at the local preschools also learned the RULER approach, while a nearly $1 million grant from the Institute of Education Sciences will allow some preschools to be part of a study on the effectiveness of the method.Introducing the approach to preschoolers could be key to preventing problems when the children reach the public schools, Sipala said.New Milford uses the “Nurtured Heart” approach, which encourages students to build positive relationships and fosters independence and growth. The district also hosts programs to educate parents on mental health.Meanwhile, Newtown has services in district, but works closely with support centers in the community, many of which formed after the Sandy Hook tragedy.Aside from the pilot initiative at the elementary level, students in the middle and high schools participate in the Signs of Suicide Prevention Program, which is used around the country.Bethel this school year received a $20,000 United Way grant for suicide prevention, which covers training sessions for staff, surveys of students and other programs.Bethel also uses a product that screens what students are searching and writing online on school devices. This allowed staff to help several students who wrote about harming themselves, Superintendent Christine Carver said.Schools also hold special weeks to promote kindness, Carver said. “We’re really working on a culture of kindness and respect,” she said.