BOSCOBEL - The Boscobel Area School District is launching a new initiative to identify students with mental health struggles. A year in the planning, the program involves identifying students in the classroom who may be suffering from anxiety, depression, or other conditions, as well as routine screening for suicide risk.
Problems related to mental health are widespread in schools across the state and the country, according to retired counselor Paul Gasser, who is under contract to assist the district in its efforts.
“Boscobel isn’t unique,” he told the School Board at its monthly meeting on November 14. “Lots of schools that I’ve been working with struggle with kids who have mental health issues. We had problems prior to the pandemic, but I think the pandemic has only escalated those issues.”
The goal of the program, he emphasized, is to provide early intervention—offering services both within the district and the community that prevent a crisis.
Teachers on the lookout
The new initiative begins by training teachers to differentiate between typical developmental behavior and more serious mental health concerns. Signs of mental distress can include the obvious, like self-harm or noticeable depression—but subtler changes like a marked drop in school performance or unusual behavior might also signal a mental health stress for students.
“Issues like self-harm, aggression. Maybe issues with poor concentration,” Gasser said. “We’re asking teachers to take notice of kids that are in trouble or struggling. Tell us about it, and then act on it.”
To this end, Gasser and the school staff have developed a quick checklist of about 20 warning signs. Teachers will use the checklists to flag worrisome students and refer them to a school counselor. In turn, the counselor can evaluate a student and make recommendations for outside treatment, including therapy, social services, or in some cases, the police.
Problems on the rise
As students round the bend on their first “normal” year since the start of the pandemic, schools are seeing an increase in problems related to depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues, according to Gasser.
Some of this escalation is the simple result of overdue medical visits, he said, as the pandemic reduced or eliminated face-to-face therapy at most clinics. “We did everything by zoom, and some kids just kind of dropped off the face of the earth,” he said.
But a return to face-to-face instruction has brought additional stressors—in particular, social anxiety.
“We’ve been struggling with kids not coming to school, or coming to school tardy, or our kids are isolated and withdrawn.” Gasser said. “You would think that the most common mood disorder in public schools is depression. It’s really not. It’s anxiety. Seventy percent of our kids meet diagnostic criteria for generalized anxiety disorder. What that really says we have a lot of kids who are worriers, and sometimes that worrying behavior comes out as acting out behavior.”
A growing crisis?
Tempting as it is to blame Covid-19 for what many are calling a mental health crisis, the fact is that the numbers already looked bad heading into the pandemic. From 2016 to 2019, according to the National Education Association (NEA), the number of children diagnosed with anxiety rose by 27 percent; depression, by 24 percent. Of those with depression, the NEA reports, two-thirds report they have not received treatment or help.
The pandemic, which interrupted the relationships that might have helped students in the past, only worsened the picture, according to the NEA.
A compelling body of research links mental health struggles among youth to poor academic performance, including worse grades, lower graduation rates, higher dropout rates, and increased risk-taking such as substance abuse.
These problems in adolescence spill over into the adulthood, Gasser told the board. “Just take a look at the cost to a community with an individual that never got diagnosed,” he said, pointing to lost wages, increased alcohol and drug abuse, and even related policing and court costs, to say nothing of the human loss of someone who, with an early intervention, might ultimately have contributed more to the community.
A second prong of the district’s plan is to screen all students in grades seven, nine, and eleven for suicide risk. Studies show these age groups face increased stress and a higher risk for suicide, Gasser said.
The screening will be a brief questionnaire, according to district staff. Depending on their answers, students will either return to the classroom or get referred to immediate counselling.
“Our biggest concern, based on when I’ve done this in the past, is that we have enough mental health professionals as a backup,” Gasser said. “As you open up Pandora’s box, you’re going to be amazed at the number of kids who are going to report, ‘I’m having thoughts of self-harm.’”
Screenings will begin in February. Parents will be alerted prior to the screenings, and either a student or their parents may opt out of the program.