Mental Health

The mass-shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, and schools around the nation last year ignited a debate on mental health and the need to prevent young people from slipping through the cracks.

Local school district efforts are designed to do just that.

“We believe that the spate of violence we see in schools are effects of our students’ needs not being met,” says Joe Fantigrossi, intervention coordinator at the Lyons Central School District.

In particular, Fantigrossi points to childhood trauma. The more traumatic events young people experience, the more likely they are to exhibit academic and behavioral issues that can develop into things like drug and alcohol abuse, self-injury, violence and suicide.

Meeting needs

A student’s mental health also affects his or her ability to succeed.

“We very strongly believe that if we can’t meet the basic needs of our students, we have very limited ability to address their academic needs,” Fantigrossi says.

Statewide, districts are now required to integrate mental health programs into their district programs. At Lyons, Seneca Falls and Bloomfield, those needs are being met in a multitude of ways.

Lyons is in its third year of utilizing a multi-tiered system of support. The system is designed to identify students in need of intervention. Depending on the severity, those needs are met with an increasingly higher level of support — including individual and family counseling, both in school and at the offices of community partners.

According to Fantigrossi, Tier 3 intervention is "the highest level of service utilizing all of our resources to meet their needs.”

Tier 3 support comes from counselors, school psychologists and in-school social workers from Wayne County’s Behavioral Health department. The district contracts with counseling agencies as well.

“The mental health of our students is something we place great emphasis on,” says Jodie Verkey, director of curriculum, instruction, assessment and professional development at Seneca Falls. “Changing demographics, social media influence and increased pressures on youth have resulted in heightened awareness of students’ negative thoughts, depression, anxiety and overall mental health strain.

“Our teachers are working hard to embed mental health components into the curriculum they deliver. Our school counselors and teachers do an excellent job educating every child regarding making responsible decisions, building positive relationships, increasing self-awareness and management, building resilience and empathy, as well as academic, career and personal/social development.”

Mind first

Amy Conklin, a school counselor in the middle/high school counseling office in Bloomfield, lists mindfulness as a key component of addressing mental health. Generally speaking, mindfulness encourages paying attention to experiences in the present moment. District staff has been trained in practicing mindfulness.

“After seeing a steady increase in student stress and anxiety, we started incorporating mindfulness sessions for students into our days,” Conklin says. “The students loved it. The classes were full each week, and it showed us the need for this type of resource for our students.”

The focus on mindfulness has spread to faculty meetings, testing situations, in-school suspension instances and sports teams. Boys varsity basketball coach Jonathan Mastin says it’s part of his coaching philosophy of making it less about winning and more about encouraging players to focus on performance, regardless of the outcome.

“What I want my kids to do is value effort,” Mastin says.

Bloomfield also supports mental health efforts through the use of student circles.

“We have had great feedback from the students about the circles,” Conklin says. “Many have mentioned greater connection to their classmates.”

According to Conklin, these circles foster communication, but students are also learning coping skills, managing their emotions and self-awareness. Bloomfield also uses the circles in response to crises — anything from bullying issues, student-teacher conflicts to classroom management.

Eventually, the district is also looking to create a mindfulness center where students can decompress when needed.

Taking care

To provide the kind of support students deserve, staff must have access to the proper resources, training and support, as well. Wellness programs available to staff members of these districts do just that.

“Our wellness program encourages and supports the adults in the district to pause, reflect and participate in promoting their own mental health wellness,” Verkey says. “We understand that we have to take care of ourselves to take better care of our students.”

This article was originally published in Community Health for Finger Lakes Area School Health Plan.