Focusing on Student Mental Health: Weston High School

The February 23, 2021 Weston School Committee meeting (covered by the Owl in this post) included a heartfelt plea for understanding student mental health issues. In his remarks, WHS senior class president Nate Icke spoke about the depression and isolation felt by many students during the pandemic.

The pandemic’s effect on children is not “new news”–traditional news media has been reporting on it for some time (see this Washington Post article--subscription required). Students face limited social interaction, feelings of loneliness and anxiety, as well as uncertainty about the future. What is different for Weston is that the schools and the students themselves are taking action to make it better.

During his School Committee remarks, Nate mentioned that he and other students were in the process of starting up a chapter of Active Minds at Weston High School. From their website, Active Minds is an organization focused on opening conversations about mental health and creating lasting change in the way mental health is talked about, cared for, and valued, and is directed towards young adults ages 14-25. Later this week, the Owl will catch up with Nate (it’s not easy!) and hear about this student-led effort.

While Active Minds is a student-led effort, there are several other mental health support programs at the high school. The first line of support is guidance counseling, and the five counselors who provide not only academic counseling but social emotional support on a daily basis. Students frequently go to these counselors first.

There are also three School Adjustment Counselors who specialize in mental health. They (henceforth SAC) are additionally licensed in, and focused on, student mental health.

Mental Health support at the Weston High School can be thought of as having three programs:

For students who may be experiencing a one-off issue such as a tragic family event or perhaps a break-up with a significant other. These may be students who show up once in a high school career, or once in a while, or once a week, but with lower needs. It may also include students who have chronic anxiety and are looking for ways to manage it. The School Adjustment Counselor for this program is Paula Gearan.

For students with higher needs, the Compass program is available. The Compass Program provides students faced with medical, mental health, and social-emotional challenges with a safe, structured space and integrated short-term (6-12 weeks) therapeutic and academic supports as they work towards fully accessing the general curriculum. In particular, students who have had to miss school for any given reason have a place to acclimate back to school. To be in the Compass program, a student’s needs are evaluated by the SAC, the District Psychologist Dr. Madeline Steinberg, the Special Education Director Pat Kelly and Student Services Director Jennifer Truslow. If the student is suited for Compass, parent permission and permission from the two department heads is required. It is not an immediate entry into the program, though it can happen quickly if the situation calls for it. The SAC for Compass is Erin Foley.

For the highest levels of mental health needs, the Bridge program is offered. The Bridge Program is a special education program accessible only to students with an IEP (Individualized Education Program) for a diagnosed primary emotional disability.  Bridge offers long-term individualized clinical and academic support for students whose academic functioning has been significantly impaired as a result of his/her/their mental health diagnosis/es. Consideration of student eligibility for the Bridge Program is overseen by the student’s IEP team. The Bridge Program is co-run by a school adjustment counselor (Emma Feldmann) and special education teacher (Rachel Orenstein), in addition to being staffed by two learning assistants. 

While services have been challenging to get to students during the pandemic, the Counselors are doing their best to reach the students who need help. Students can be get help via teacher referral, a concerned parent getting in touch, IEP or 504 request for support, guidance counselor referral, SOS (Signs of Suicide) assessment in health class, self-referral, and sometimes a student is found crying in the hallway, bathroom or cafeteria and a kind faculty member will guide them to the office.

Perhaps the most touching kind of referral to Paula Gearan is the one where a friend or classmate brings the student into the office:

“In Weston, kids tend to take care of each other” says Gearan, “which is not always the case in other school districts. On more than one occasion, a student will appear at my door or the door of a guidance counselor and say ‘I am worried about my friend–what can I do?'”

And for all those STEM parents who wonder if English or History is a waste of time, one of the surprising referral sources is a classroom discussion that brings up deeper emotions in some students. Think about how you reacted to a book like Elie Wiesel’s Night (this book is currently being taught in the eight grade). What about your reactions to historical moments of high anxiety–apartheid, civil rights, the Holocaust? If student mental distress becomes clear in these discussions, teachers may bring this forward to the counseling staff.

Schools and counselors are still trying to address many of the mental health challenges in the pandemic. One of the larger issues is when kids simply “disappear” from sight–or a short-term absence becomes longer-term. Anxiety can bubble up so much that the students don’t even want to get close to a school building. How do you address mental health over zoom? How can access be open to all who need it, even in remote learning situations? The issues are many, and they are serious.

Contacts:

Guidance counselors are the first level of support, so please contact your student’s counselor for more information or to answer questions. If you have specific questions or concerns on the three additinal areas of mental health support, please contact Paula Gearan, gearanp@weston.org

In addition, Erin Foley has a website https://sites.google.com/view/whs-compass that has great resources (including a virtual calming room) for anyone interested.

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