With all schools in New Jersey in distance learning mode, the dedicated staff of Columbia High School’s award-winning student newspaper, The Columbian, proudly present their third on-line edition at thecolumbianchs.
Teens across the U.S. must face oodles of stressors everyday; some may come from the pressure to succeed, social media, managing distance learning in the age of COVID-19, amongst other factors, and Columbia High School (CHS) students are no exception. “We are told that all the decisions that we make in high school will affect us in the future. This can be very stressful and lead to mental health problems,” said Theresa Jean Baptiste, ‘20. “I know that a lot of people, including myself, struggle with mental health in various ways, and I think that it’s important to be aware… that it is a prevalent problem here and in a lot of places as well,” added Elianna Perlman, ‘22.
A LOOK INSIDE THE SYSTEM
“My son was an honors, [Advanced Placement] student and had a traumatic experience halfway through junior year that triggered an almost immediate, deep depression,” said one CHS parent, who requested to remain anonymous. “As you’re dealing with all of that, there’s nobody who ever sits you down at [CHS] and says, ‘We can help you work this out.’ … It was easy to feel like nobody as a parent wanted you to have all of this information. … To not feel like you’re getting the proper support from the school is just horrific,” they continued.
Confusion seems to be a common trend when it comes to accessing mental health support in the South Orange-Maplewood School District (SOMSD). “I think it should be easier to get help [because] it can be hard to find these services and who to talk to,” stated Jean Baptiste.
“It’s sort of like going to three different doctors and getting drugs from three different people, and nobody’s checking if those drugs are contraindicated.”
“There are social workers [for grades] K-12, [and] there are guidance counselors grades six through 12. Maybe what they need to do is do a better job of introducing this and reminding students and parents of these services,” explained former CHS student assistance counselor (SAC) of 25 years, Judith Cohen (a position now held by Michael Loupis, Nicole Eustice and Dorota Martinez). “Kids aren’t even aware that this stuff is there. … Unless you’re going to kill yourself, everything you tell me is confidential. And that’s the law. So there are places where children can get any assistance, any question answered. … Maybe we need a little better communication, a little better transparency of what is available,” Cohen added.
The confusion not only seems to stem from a lack of knowledge about what resources are available, but also the way in which the system itself operates. “You end up talking to the nurse, the guidance department; you might end up with the assistant principal. And if you go through this journey, nobody knows everything… there is no centralized system at the high school where you can get all of this information,” explained the aforementioned parent. “It’s sort of like going to three different doctors and getting drugs from three different people, and nobody’s checking if those drugs are contraindicated.”
A LETTER FROM SCOTT WHITE
In March, Scott White vacated his position of Interim Director of Guidance at CHS, but not before composing a letter to the SOMSD Board of Education detailing some of the flaws he saw in the school district, one of which being the way it addresses mental health. It was not originally written for consumption by the public, but has since been published on Facebook and then by The Village Green. “We have more and more kids who are depressed, self-harming, anxious and suicidal. My job has largely become keeping kids alive and that is truly alarming,” described White in the letter. “This is a mental health crisis and we are really stuck in blaming the victim instead of necessary and purposeful introspection of what we are doing. It is as if our house is burning and we are continually adding more fuel to the fire,” he continued.
The letter has warranted mixed reactions. “I can count over 10 families of seniors who are struggling with mental health issues. That’s just in my little personal world,” said the anonymous parent. “There are a lot of kids who are struggling, so I’m in complete agreement with pretty much everything Scott White says in this letter.”
Cohen, on the other hand, “absolutely disagree[s] with the magnitude of how much mental health he’s talking about,” asserting that White fails to offer a contextualized definition of mental health. “What is someone defining as mental health? Someone has a little anxiety? Someone has three tests in a day, and that makes them nervous, and they have a headache or they get a stomach ache? That’s not mental health, that’s general nerves and learning how to cope.”
However, there was one statement made that has proven to be especially controversial. In his letter, White claims that the regional director of Effective School Solutions (ESS) said of CHS, “Of the 45 plus schools over three states, including some therapeutic schools, yours is the sickest.”
“I don’t agree with that at all… that’s such a broad-based statement to make, and very explosive, too,” said Cohen. “We absolutely have children who struggle with stress, and on varying degrees. Certainly some truly have some serious psychological issues that could come from a myriad of ways. It could come from [their] environment, it could [be] hereditary; we have to explore all that before you make statements,” she continued.
“Are we the sickest because we have more kids that are willing to get help? Are we the sickest because we have more parents that are willing to get help for our kids? Or are we actually the sickest?” asked the anonymous parent. “I think the problem is no one’s done that statistical analysis, so there are a lot of parents saying they’re bothered by that assertion. But I think they’re missing the point.”
ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT
SOMSD does have resources for students who are struggling, despite the lack of awareness among students of their existence. According to SOMSD Superintendent Dr. Ronald Taylor, “The first resource that is always available is your family… If that is not a comfortable option, your classroom teachers are of course there for you. … Your guidance counselors are available to you as well your School Leadership, Team-Principal and Assistant Principals.” The aforementioned parent noted,“[Guidance counselor] Mr. William Berrios, under Scott White, took on a very significant role in helping our family with emotional support and advice in navigating CHS during this crisis. He went above and beyond his job description, creatively solved problems and consistently showed my son that he had not forgotten or given up on him.”
In addition, there are other faculty members who also have mental health support built into their job descriptions, such as the current SACs, nurses, school psychologists and social workers, as described by Cohen: “The nurses do a fabulous job of working in tandem with the SACs, with the guidance counselors, with all the mental health professionals, and we all work in terms of helping kids. So there are a number of resources right in the building. Not to mention, you have ESS.”
“We can always improve. In fact, we made student mental health supports a key priority for our upcoming school year’s budget … We do not yet know how our budget will be impacted by the current COVID-19 crisis, but please know that we are keeping a close eye on it.” – Dr. Ronald Taylor
However, there is room for improvement. In terms of how to do this, Perlman suggested “providing a wider variety” of resources and “some sort of check-in.” She also thinks that “having a survey of what people are looking for, what they want out of the guidance department and out of the district” could be beneficial, as well as “some sort of opportunity to connect at school in ways that are outside of just education.”
Speaking from their own experience, the anonymous parent emphasized the need for a singular individual at CHS dedicated to dealing with students’ mental health. “They need an assistant principal whose job is to only manage this sort of mental health, cultural, social-life of the high school, and that doesn’t exist.” They also spoke on fostering a culture within CHS that is more aware of what students may be struggling with, for when their own child was struggling with mental health, only one teacher reached out to check in. “What’s the culture of the school that the teachers don’t feel the need to reach out and say, ‘Is anything going on? Oh my god, your kid hasn’t been in school in two months.’”
Another solution could come in the form of more student interaction, a method which had worked well when Cohen was a SAC at CHS. “One of the things I used to run was a peer counseling program,” explained Cohen. “I had about 20 [to] 25 [students], and these were kids all knowing right from wrong. They knew what to do; they went through struggles and came out on the other side. They were the ambassadors that went to other kids. … We need to incorporate more kids helping kids.”
The desire for improvements has been acknowledged by the district; “We can always improve. In fact, we made student mental health supports a key priority for our upcoming school year’s budget,” said Dr. Taylor. “We do not yet know how our budget will be impacted by the current COVID-19 crisis, but please know that we are keeping a close eye on it.”
But implementations don’t necessarily mean immediate solutions, as mental health is not one size fits all. “A lot of times I’d say to a kid, ‘If you were run over by a Mack truck and broke both of your legs, you would be better off than feeling as blue as you do,’” explained Cohen. “‘Because with your legs, you can take an X-ray, you can see exactly where it is, you put the casts on, you fix it. There is no X-ray for mental health.’”
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