School districts train educators to identify, prevent youth mental health crises

BOSTON — Across our state, children and their families are struggling to find services to meet mental health needs. That has a spillover effect into our schools.

Boston 25 News anchor and investigative reporter Kerry Kavanaugh is continuing our series examining a crisis in youth mental health ‘Boston 25 Gets Real about Kids and Mental Health.’

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In this installment, we get an inside look at how school districts are training educators to spot concerns before they become a crisis.

Mental health needs spillover effect on schools

The concern for children’s mental health and well-being in schools is not new. School leaders across the state said what is new is the enormous need they’re seeing.

They said it’s unprecedented.

Meeting that need is front and center.

In late August we went to Medford where inside a classroom at Medford High School, the principals and other school administrators were the students. The subject of the day was social emotional learning.

“Social emotional learning is teaching students how to identify their feelings, relate to others and make good decisions,” Stacey Schulman, the director of school counseling and behavioral health for Medford Public Schools, said.

Social emotional learning isn’t new in educational arena. But there is increasing need for it, especially after nearly two years of remote learning.

“You really don’t know what to anticipate from all the kids walking back in these doors for the first time in 18 months,” Kavanaugh said.

“We are seeing signs of isolation, fear, and loneliness,” Schulman said. “We need to be able to be at the ready and support them for coming into our schools.”

Around the same time in late August we found a similar training for new teachers and educators in Arlington.

“When it comes to mental health, teachers are a lot less comfortable in determining, ‘Is that anxiety? Were you’re just anxious about something? You need reassurance?’ Or, ‘Is that anxiety where you might not be safe?” Sara Fernandes Burd, director of counseling and social emotional learning for the Arlington Public Schools, said.

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Fernandes Burd said prevention and early intervention are at the core of a program they’ve dubbed ‘Youth Mental Health First Aid.’

When we visited, she was leading a large group through a session during which educators where working to tap into their own emotional needs.

We found these discussions are resonating with educators.

“It’s my first time in the building in18 months, yeah, it’s gonna be a whole new thing,” said Lisa Lambert, a sixth grade science teacher in Arlington. “I can’t teach my content until you know, their social emotional lives are taken care of first.”

“If we don’t teach students the skills to really live in these moments of discomfort and turmoil, then they’re going to continue to let them snowball and snowball, and then you end up developing these anxious feelings that become so overwhelming and really crippling,” Fernandes Burd said.

The struggle for services outside of school

And when we talk about this training and hyper focus on the emotional well-being of students and staff, consider the range of things that children have endured during this pandemic. There was the abrupt switch to remote learning, a disrupted routine, family financial struggles, food insecurity, perhaps sickness and death.

On top of that, kids and families are forced to wait longer and longer for mental health services outside of schools.

One day in late August, Franciscan Children’s Hospital in Brighton told Kavanaugh its waitlist for outpatient services had 146 kids on it.

During the last week of July, the Massachusetts Health and Hospitals Association reported more than 500 behavioral health patients, including 74 children, were in Massachusetts hospital emergency rooms waiting for an available psychiatric bed.

Schulman said this wave of need was building before the pandemic.

“So, in the past five years, we’ve seen public school systems become de facto mental health agencies, we’re employing more licensed clinicians than ever, more school psychologists.”

And the goal is to keep kids out of crisis.

“We’re here to say we care about you,” Schulman said. “We want to know about you. We want to learn what you’ve been doing for the last 18 months when we haven’t had eyes on you.”

This school year Medford was selected one of 15 districts in the country to be a part of a program, The National Learning Collaborative for Safe and Supportive Schools.

The two-year pilot will develop best practices for mental health in a school setting.