If your teenage son was slipping into depression and the only people who noticed something was wrong were two of his teachers, you probably would want them to know what to do. Perhaps they would acknowledge your son’s struggle and start a conversation. Maybe they would ask a school counselor to listen. Whatever the response, it would connect him with caring adults who could help him address the issues in his life.
Some people might argue it’s the parents’ responsibility to deal with their son’s depression, not the school’s. Of course ideally parents would be present. They would model appropriate behavior for their son and make sure he knew he could ask for help when he needed it. In a perfect world, the son would want the teachers or school counselor to call his parents, so they could be there for him.
But this isn’t an ideal world. Some students don’t live with their parents, and some parents are emotionally unavailable to their children. And, even those with loving parents still have a right — and often the need — to confide in a trusted adult outside their home. For too long the debate about mental health help in schools has been hijacked by the notion that it’s not the school’s place to do anything. Yet school is exactly the place many young people can find someone who cares.
“We can waste our time figuring out whose job it is — the parent’s job, the teacher’s job. The fact of the matter is we get the kids six hours a day, five days a week,” Gina Brodsky, student assistance counselor at York High School, said.
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Yet most schools are not equipped to handle the very real problem of depression and anxiety among students. About a quarter of Maine high school students report feeling so sad or hopeless that they stop doing their usual activities for at least two weeks of the year, according to the 2015 Maine Integrated Youth Health Survey. The consequences can be far reaching. Teenagers who report a major depressive episode in the past year are two times as likely to use illicit drugs.
Schools want help. Out of 229 principals, assistant principals and school counselors who answered a recent Bangor Daily News survey, 162, or 71 percent, said the No. 1 thing they need to respond to substance use issues the way they’d like to is “counseling for students and/or parents,” followed by training for staff. As part of the BDN survey, Maine school administrators ranked the top major challenges facing their students: poverty, substance use or addiction, child anxiety and a family history or presence of mental illness.
Students echoed their responses. At the One Life Project: Youth Voice event in Bangor on Sept. 20, about 160 students shared their thoughts on how adults could better support them. They said they want someone at their school or in their lives who will listen to them without judgment, without consequence and in confidence.
Reimagining a system of mental health support in schools may seem like a daunting task, but many people in districts throughout the state are willing to help.
They need someone, perhaps a leader in the Legislature, the Maine Education Association, the Maine Principals’ Association or the Maine School Management Association, to take up the cause with schools to answer questions such as this: How can each school gain access to a qualified counselor who won’t be inundated with other duties, such as helping students with college and career preparation, who can organize training for staff, coordinate evidence-based curricula, be a visible presence in the community and connect with students to gain their trust?
Schools employ nurses to address physical ailments. It makes sense to also have professionals who can prioritize students’ emotional health. It would go a long way toward preventing students from self-medicating and, later on, developing an addiction. It would make them feel like they matter.