Brecksville-Broadview Heights schools develop mental health action plan as pupils report depression, anxiety

October 2, 2018

Brecksville-Broadview Heights schools develop mental health action plan as pupils report depression, anxiety

BRECKSVILLE, Ohio – The Brecksville-Broadview Heights schools are developing a “district action plan for mental health” designed to help pupils, parents, teachers and administrators face and deal with mental health issues.

The district started working on the plan earlier in 2018 due to a high number of pupils reporting feelings of depression and anxiety, and because of pupil suicides, according to Gina Symsek, Brecksville-Broadview Heights’ director of pupil services.

Symsek said some high-school- and middle-school-age pupils are struggling with eating disorders and practicing self-injurious behaviors. Some fourth- and fifth-graders are trying to cope with various stressors, including drug-addicted parents and parent deaths.

Meanwhile, tragedies like the deadly mass shooting in February at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida – where a former Marjory Stoneman pupil opened fire, killing 17 people – are adding to pupil stress.

Symsek talked about the mental health plan last week before the Brecksville-Broadview Heights school board.

“Let’s face it, there are a lot of pressures in today’s society,” Symsek told the board. “We want to make sure that we’re aware of that and providing (pupils) strategies.”

Symsek did not return several emails and phone calls regarding the number of suicides by pupils in the Brecksville-Broadview Heights district; over what length of time the suicides occurred; and the number or percentage of pupils suffering from mental- or emotional-health issues.

‘Social-emotional learning’

Symsek said that according to research, curriculum that includes “social and emotional learning (SEL)” improves academic outcomes for pupils, especially if it starts in preschool and runs through high school. SEL also makes pupils more resilient and equipped to deal with day-to-day life, less inclined toward bullying and less likely to abuse drugs.

The goals of SEL are to nurture self-awareness, self-management, social awareness and positive decision-making in pupils, Symsek said.

SEL programs can include pupils meeting in small groups during the school day to discuss anxieties and life issues. Programs might also include deep-breathing and meditation.

Symsek said the Brecksville-Broadview Heights district may partner with an outside agency to provide an onsite social worker or psychologist, who would offer support to pupils, with parental permission.

In addition to assisting individual pupils, SEL can spot district-wide social-emotional patterns, like an elevated number of pupils suffering from anxiety.

To evaluate children’s social, emotional and mental-health needs, the district will use a “universal screener,” a short test that identifies pupils at risk of poor learning outcomes, according to the Center on Response to Intervention.

Symsek said the district has already implemented some universal screeners, including Signs of Suicide for sixth-graders and Youth Risk Behavior Assessment in seventh- and eighth-grades. The district plans to choose a new universal screener for pupils in grades 4-12.

Reducing stress

SEL programs already in the district include Healthy Alternatives for Little Ones, which helps 3- to 6-year-olds gain self-awareness, get along with others and learn to be kind and respectful. It started in the 2017-2018 school year.

At the other end of the spectrum, the internet-based All Choices Matter allows high schoolers to obtain guidance on difficult life issues. The program finds experts to help individual pupils.

Symsek said the district has just begun a pilot program for two sixth-grade classes, although she didn’t name the program. Eventually the district will expand the program to include all of Brecksville-Broadview Heights Middle School.

The district is looking to add a program through PAX Ohio for K-5 pupils. It’s a behavioral game that teaches self-regulation, self-management and self-control in young people, according to the PAX Ohio website. It’s scheduled to begin next school year.

Also, the district, partnering with outside agencies, will organize group sessions on topics like anxiety at Central Elementary and Brecksville-Broadview Heights High schools, and the middle school.

Teachers and staffers are also receiving training and mental-health assistance. That’s important because if teachers and staff are stressed out, they’re not as effective in their jobs. They can miss signs of stress in children and mistake them for behavioral problems, Symsek said.

Symsek said the district contracts with PEP Assist, a consulting and training service that shows educators how to work with at-risk and special-needs children. The schools are looking to add programs that relieve stress for teachers and staff during the workday.

Mental-health programs are also key for parents and the community at large, Symsek said. The district has already hosted presentations about suicide prevention and the signs of suicide. Such sessions will continue.

But mental-health programs aren’t free. District Treasurer Jeff Hall was unable to say in time for this story how much the district is now spending on these programs. He said the spending is spread out among various departments so the total amount is difficult to nail down.

Symsek said she has been seeking grants for mental-health initiatives. For the new middle school program, the district received a grant through Catholic Charities, and additional money came from the Brecksville-Broadview Heights Schools Foundation. The district is hoping for an Ohio Department of Education grant for the PAX program.

Board President Kathleen Mack said that a commitment to pupils’ mental health is a board priority. She said the district has been lucky to receive grants to kickstart programming.

“If more of a financial commitment is needed, then this board will examine the effectiveness of the program and make the determination for funding at that time,” Mack told cleveland.com in an email.
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