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    Sunday, May 26, 2024

    Student mental health issues given funding priority

    Mental Health Therapist Kristen Aberizk, LPC, hangs a poster as she sets up a school-based health center through the Child and Family Agency of Southeastern Connecticut at Ledyard Middle School on Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2023. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    A board game aimed to help share feelings in the school-based health center through the Child and Family Agency of Southeastern Connecticut at Ledyard Middle School on Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2023. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    More and younger students struggle with serious mental health issues today, and veteran youth health providers in the region say what were rare acute anxiety, depression and isolation experiences several years ago now are “the norm” among their student clientele.

    “We’re seeing steadily rising acuity,” said Lisa Otto, chief executive officer at Child and Family Agency based in New London.

    “We’re seeing kids struggling more and younger than we’ve ever seen,” Otto continued. “It predates the pandemic, but I think in the last five years, even more in the past two or three, we’re seeing younger and younger kids with more acute depression, more acute anxiety, trauma. And frantic parents. They don’t know what’s going on with their kids, and where to turn for help.”

    Student mental health concerns, ranging from alarming absentee rates to anxiety, depression, classroom behavior and what administrators now call “dysregulation” ― inability to control an emotional response to situations, inability to sit still or follow instructions. Educators say students also have limited attention spans, and younger students had trouble adjusting to school routines after pandemic remote learning.

    “A lot of people have said COVID increased the need (for mental health services),” said Leslie Skekel, supervisor of school based health centers for United Community and Family Services. “In my experience, the need has always been there, and COVID just made the need public.”

    Skekel said elementary school children feel “sensation overload,” can’t stay still long and can be labeled quickly as disruptive. Mental health services include group activities, moving around, encouraging teachers to incorporate five-minute movement breaks into learning time.

    Older students grapple with social identity, Skekel said, needing to figure out where they fit in. Intense feelings can create acute anxiety and depression. Therapists work to help students understand those feelings and work out their responses. Skekel counsels that you can’t just “think a feeling away.”

    Cries for help have reached Hartford and Washington, D.C. A flurry of grant awards were announced in August directly to schools and health agencies that provide physical and mental health services to students.

    School-based specialists

    On Aug. 3, Gov. Ned Lamont and Education Commissioner Charlene Russell-Tucker announced $15 million awarded to 72 school districts in the second of three planned funding rounds to hire and retain school mental health specialists over the next three school years.

    Groton, Ledyard, Montville, Preston and Stonington school districts received funding, along with Norwich Free Academy and the Integrated Day Charter School in Norwich. Lamont used a portion of the state’s American Rescue Plan Act grant to fund the program.

    On Aug. 15, the national organization, School-Based Health Alliance, announced one-time grants to 20 Connecticut organizations to create 27 new school-based health centers and expand another 70 centers across the state. The grants will pay for physical renovations, new equipment, technology upgrades and in some cases staffing. The funding was distributed to the national agency through the Connecticut Department of Public Health.

    In southeastern Connecticut, Child and Family Agency was awarded $2,721,799 to create nine school-based health centers and expand 13 existing centers, including adding mental/behavioral health services to many SBHCs. New centers are being set up immediately to be in service for the school year.

    New SBHCs will be at Charles Barnum and Northeast Academy Arts Magnet elementary schools in Groton, the Ella T. Grasso Technical High School in Groton, in Ledyard at the Gales Ferry/Juliet Long and Gallup Hill elementary schools, Ledyard Middle School and Ledyard High School and in Stonington at West Vine Street elementary school and Stonington High School.

    Child and Family Agency will expand five SBHCs in Groton schools, six in New London schools, and expand the health centers at Stonington Middle School and the Friendship School in Waterford.

    United Community and Family Services, based in Norwich, received $572,667 to expand SBHCs at the John B. Stanton elementary school and at Teachers Memorial Global Studies Magnet Middle School in Norwich and to create an SBHC at the Tyl Middle School in Montville.

    Separately on Aug. 15, Lamont announced $4.5 million awarded over three years to 48 Connecticut school districts and summer camp programs to support student mental health programs during the summer. Locally, the Groton school district received $133,650, North Stonington school district, $108,333, and Norwich school district received $40,500.

    School districts and health agencies welcomed the open faucet of funding for mental and behavioral health, along with the training for staff required of grant recipients.

    Preston Superintendent Roy Seitsinger was part of a national committee of superintendents in 2019 to push for what then was considered groundbreaking effort to make social and emotional learning a key component in education.

    Seitsinger said recently that the School Superintendents Association Social and Emotional Learning Cohort stopped meeting, as students’ mental health needs drew more widespread attention.

    U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, visited with Preston school officials in May to discuss Preston’s receipt of a $226,300 grant through the American Rescue Plan Act to boost the small district’s response to students’ mental health needs. In the new grant round, Preston received $139,860 to increase mental health staffing in the town’s two schools.

    Seitsinger said he was grateful that state and federal lawmakers realized small town children face the same mental struggles as those in the larger, more urban districts. Preston does not have a school-based health center. With the grant, Preston hired a four-day per week social worker for the middle school, and now has two social workers, two school psychologists and two school nurses to help address mental health needs.

    “Over the last several years, we saw a steady uptick in overall student mental health concerns, starting before the pandemic,” Seitsinger said, “and the pandemic exacerbated that situation. We’ve seen dysregulation in some students, increased anxiety, and some students just needing the space to stay away from social media.”

    He said Preston schools will implement a combination of formal structured mental health program time along with in-class time to support all students.

    As a privately endowed academy, Norwich Free Academy traditionally has not received state education grants. But state Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, has pushed for funding, arguing that NFA serves more than 2,100 public education students from Norwich and seven surrounding towns.

    New Head of School Nathan Quesnel welcomed the $133,397 awarded to NFA in August. Quesnel emphasized students’ well-being during his first meeting with the NFA Board of Trustees Aug. 15, the day the grants were announced.

    Attendance push

    He said students struggle with apathy and isolation. NFA will design a mental health program to help students understand they are “cared for, respected and valued” at NFA. Quesnel, who came to NFA after 10 years as superintendent of East Hartford public schools, expressed concern about the academy’s chronic absentee rate that approaches 30%. He pledged a big push, including outreach to parents, to get students to come to school.

    Quesnel said high school students are part of an overall social trend over the past five years in which rules more and more have become just suggestions. He told the Board of Trustees he will enforce school cellphone rules ― no phones or earbuds during class ― along with attendance.

    “We need our kids in school,” Quesnel saiad. “There’s a lot of reasons for that. That’s why I’m insisting on that. All the good things we do here at NFA don’t work if you don’t come. ... In the past, threat of losing credits, threat of calling parents, don’t work anymore. If our kids don’t come to school, I would wonder why they would go to college, why they would go to work?”

    Norwich Public Schools will add a new safety care curriculum in all schools to its cadre of mental health and social and emotional learning programs, said Lisa Hughes, director of students services. The program is heavy on deescalation, teaching staff to identify kids with emotional triggers and help them to cope and respond to their emotions.

    Each Norwich classroom has a so-called calming corner, where a student can go when feeling stressed, Hughes said. Classrooms are being designed to be more welcoming, and throughout the day, all students will have “brain breaks,” she said, brief mental health breaks.

    All Norwich school buildings have board-certified behavior analysts and behavioral technicians, some schools more than one, Hughes said.

    “That has allowed us to really get to the challenging behavior students have,” Hughes said, “to get them into an intervention program and work with them and their families.”


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