As students return to classrooms across Massachusetts, school districts are increasing their mental health supports to meet the growing demand for care. Methuen Public Schools has renewed its partnership with Care Solace, a mental health care coordination service that works with schools, students, and parents. Additionally, districts such as Cambridge are offering teletherapy sessions for students. Boston Public Schools have hired nine “safe and welcoming school specialists” to assist returning students this fall. The pandemic has shed light on the mental health crisis affecting young people nationwide, with remote learning exacerbating the situation. The U.S. Surgeon General has continually warned about the critical and often unmet mental health needs of young people.
The efforts to strengthen mental health supports come as a response to ongoing health advisories and the lasting impacts of the pandemic. Students have faced isolation from friends and teachers, and some have even lost family members to the COVID-19 virus. Boston’s chief of student support, Jillian Kelton, acknowledges the increased need for mental health services. The new school specialists have backgrounds in mental health and counseling and will tailor their assistance to meet the unique needs of each school. Boston schools already have social workers, clinicians, guidance counselors, and other support staff trained to help students with mental health issues. Some schools have also partnered with local universities to provide licensed clinical social workers.
Lauren O’Malley-Singh, a nurse at Brighton High School, has stated that the school is hosting group therapy sessions during lunchtime to address the mental health needs of students. They also have a Gender Sexuality Alliance to support LGBTQ+ youth who are at a higher risk for mental health issues. According to a May 2023 report from the MassINC Polling Group, which surveyed Massachusetts parents of K-12 students, 47% expressed concern about their children’s mental and emotional health. Only 20% said their children had been offered counseling at school and accepted, while another 23% were offered counseling but did not accept it.
John Crocker, the director of school mental health and behavioral services at Methuen Public Schools, has noticed a significant increase in anxiety and depression among students since the start of the pandemic. However, he also mentioned that there have been improvements in routine student screenings due to increased resources. Methuen has become a model for mental health services and has shared its knowledge with other districts. The district currently employs around 50 mental health staff members. Crocker founded the Massachusetts School Mental Health Consortium and revealed that a year and a half ago, their survey of approximately 120 districts found that 70% did not have administrators who could provide clinical supervision and leadership for social-emotional learning and mental health initiatives.
The issue of increased mental health concerns among students persists. According to the Kids Count Data Center at the Annie E. Casey Foundation and Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, in October 2022, 40% of Massachusetts parents living with children reported that their children felt nervous, anxious, or on edge for more than half of nearly every day. Bob Bardwell, the executive director of the Massachusetts School Counselors Association, expressed concerns that some school districts may be overburdening counselors by giving them large caseloads. This can make it challenging to provide effective support to every student.
In conclusion, Massachusetts school districts are taking steps to address the mental health needs of their students as they return to in-person learning. Partnerships with mental health care coordination services, teletherapy sessions, and the hiring of specialized staff and clinicians are all part of these efforts. However, more work needs to be done to ensure adequate support for students.