When Andrea Way, school psychologist at Deptford Township High School, started her career 20 years ago, the type of care and concern that her team had about mental health looked very different than what is on the minds of schools and communities today.
“The job description of our roles have changed so much throughout the years,” said Way. “We’re finally recognizing mental health.”
The two largest mental health concerns that the district sees from kids are anxiety and depression, at rates they haven’t experienced before. On Oct. 15, the New Jersey School Boards Association unveiled a major report on the status of mental health services in the state’s public schools.
The report of the association’s Task Force on Mental Health Services in Public Schools contains information to combat the near-epidemic levels of anxiety and depression. More than 70 recommendations have been made and the task force provides guidance and information to boards of education, school administrators and other public school leaders, educators, families and communities about how to expand services and community collaboration to address the issue.
The report suggests there is a critical need for everyone from local school districts, the community at large and the state to address the issue. For example, the findings report that as many as one in eight children and 25 percent of teens are struggling with diagnosable anxiety disorders.
Over the past few years, the Deptford district has reacted in a variety of ways, including incorporating social and emotional learning into the curriculum and training programs for school employees to recognize trauma.
“You’ll dealing with the whole child; you’re not just dealing with the academic piece,” noted Michael Nicely, director of special services and special education. “You’re dealing with the social, emotional and behavioral aspects.”
Teachers are getting trained to look for trauma in kids and take yoga and mindfulness brakes in their classrooms as part of the district’s implementation of the Social Emotional Learning (SEL) program.
High school counselors have started a once-a-week stress management group with certain students that uses meditation, deep breathing or guided imagery to develop coping skills.
One of the major recommendations in the task force report is the establishment of a community response team. One of the goals the district staff hopes to attain is to include the community.
The district has been focused on building committees both inside and outside its buildings to develop community response, including the creation of the Parents of Progress (POP) task force to get parent input with mental health.
“Our goal going forward is to help bridge that gap between school and parents within the community to bring us a little closer together,” said Nicely.