UMass Memorial bringing mental health help into Worcester middle schools

WORCESTER, Mass. — Age thirteen, 5,000 miles from home -- and suddenly thrust into that American rite of passage known as... middle school. That is what Daniel Annen experienced last year.

“It was lonesome,” he said.

Annen and his family moved to Massachusetts about two years ago from the African country of Ghana. Daniel described his home country as a place in which socializing was easy -- in part, because the constant hot weather encourages outdoor gathering.

Socializing in the U.S., he said, was not easy.

“I didn’t really know anybody there,” Daniel said. “I was very nervous, very nervous. Sitting there with like 50 kids in the lunchroom.”

Only Daniel wasn’t sitting with those kids -- he sat apart from them, all alone -- day after day after day.

Loneliness is a well-known breeding ground for depression -- and Daniel seemed headed in that direction. So faculty at Worcester East Middle School recommended Daniel enroll in a program run by UMass Memorial Medical Center that’s putting mental health counselors directly in schools. It’s called Community Health Link - C.A.R.E.S. -- and it’s now a feature at three Worcester County middle schools.

“It’s housed right in our building, so there’s no wait time,” said Worcester East Principal Corenza Jackson.

And that is huge. Mental health appointments these days are booking months in advance.

Jackson said she’s not surprised so many adolescents need counseling and emotional support -- given the pandemic.

“I also think that students now are more willing to share what they’re going through,” she said.

Othman Ladan is the Community Health Link case manager assigned to Worcester East.

“One of the biggest things we’ve seen is that students are not comfortable socializing, Ladan said. " After we came back from the whole Covid struggle one of the things that we’ve seen is that it was hard for students to be able to connect with friends and family.”

Ladan said small group socialization helps kids redevelop skills maybe lost in the pandemic. So he plans small group outings to baseball games, for example, in an effort to jump-start social skills. Participants also meet for what amounts to group therapy.

Daniel said he finally started having some fun after joining the program -- and that made it easier to talk with people.

Last week, he started high school at Worcester North. It’s only two weeks in, so Daniel hasn’t made any new friends yet -- but because of the UMass program he feels confident he will.

“It helped me not be afraid of people,” he said. “It’s not totally gone but it’s improved very much.”

This is a developing story. Check back for updates as more information becomes available.

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