Schools Look to Address Mental Health Issues

Mental health has been a major focus for the Chelsea schools over the past two years, as students deal with increased isolation from remote learning, and the general anxiety of the pandemic.

“I get asked the question of how has the pandemic impacted our students, and how has the isolation and remote learning impacted our students,” said Superintendent of Schools Dr. Almi Abeyta. “We are pulling our resources together in and out of the district to meet the needs of our students. But the needs have definitely increased as a result of isolation and remote learning, there are a lot more issues that we are dealing with.”

Providing mental health resources for students, both in the schools and together with the community, are an important piece of helping to improve student achievement, Abeyta said.

At Monday’s School Committee meeting, the district’s equity, counseling, and social work leaders gave a presentation on mental health issues in the schools and the steps being taken to address them.

“When the students came back in the fall, we really wanted to know how they were doing emotionally,” said Kim Huffer, the social work administrator. 

A voluntary mental health screen was given to students, and the results were in line with what is being seen across the country, Huffer said.

“It really aligns with what the American Academy of Pediatrics was saying around the mental health crisis, and with what the U.S. Surgeon General came out with about mental health being a public health issue,” said Huffer.

District-wide, just over 10 percent of students tested as having clinically significant levels of depression and/or anxiety, while another 7.5 percent presented as borderline at-risk.

The highest percentages were seen in the middle school level.

Pre-pandemic, Huffer said the typical percentage for significant and borderline issues is about 8 percent.

Huffer said the middle school students are at a developmental stage where they are still dependent on adults, but face greater pressure trying to fit in with peer groups and achieve their own identity.

“We are seeing the biggest impact on them mostly because of the social isolation and also just the unpredictability of the world,” said Huffer.

Ellen Kokinidis, the district’s school counseling coordinator, said the district is working to meet the mental health needs of the students through a tiered approach.

“The goal is for all of our students to improve their learning and to improve graduation rates, but overall to promote success and wellbeing for all of our students,” said Kokinidis.

The tiered approach includes social emotional learning throughout the district and curriculum and the integration of emotion regulation skills into the classroom, family and community involvement, and individual assessment and intervention for students who need it.

“Another system of support that we have is a comprehensive school mental health team that is looking to provide an array of supports,” said Kokinidis.

Additionally, the schools are working with community leaders and the municipal government with a Children’s Cabinet model that includes a mental health subcommittee.

Several School Committee members applauded the steps being taken by the district to tackle mental health issues.

“It’s not only Covid, children who have moved into Chelsea have come with trauma from other countries, and from the social and economic impacts we see in the community in which we live,” said School Committee member Yessenia Alfaro.

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