Lauren Manton and Isabella McElroy are breaking the old taboo about mental health and are engaging other Narragansett High School students to talk about it, too.
They are part of a peer-to-peer 12-student group that wants other students to know that reaching out for help is normal and that trust builds confidence to share with each other problems they are facing.
“In general, having a group like this is so important because having a small school like this, we all know each other,” said Manton, 16, a junior, and member for three years of this student outreach group.
May is Mental Health Awareness month and across the country organizations, businesses, schools and communities are sponsoring activities to shine a light on a topic once hidden in a dark closet.
“We want to reduce the stigma and we will reduce the reservations about getting help,” said, McElroy, 17, a senior and also a member of the group for more than three years.
These students’ concerns are founded in professional organizations worried about the same issues.
As statewide pediatric medical professionals declare a “state of emergency” for child and adolescent mental health concerns, local schools are pointing out they have focused increased attention on the matter.
School officials in Narragansett, South Kingstown and North Kingstown all say they have various monitoring systems for reporting students who show or experience mental health issues that need to be addressed.
“Like most school districts across the country, South Kingstown is seeing an increase in the mental health needs of our students,” said Charity Shea, director of pupil personnel services for South Kingstown Schools.
“We are seeing students who have lost out on opportunities to learn how to be a learner, how to interact with peers, and how to respond when faced with challenges,” she said.
In Narragansett, Joanne Blessing, a faculty leader of the high school student group, said, “Certainly our school is also experiencing this uptick in behaviors, stress and social anxiety.”
North Kingstown’s interim superintendent, Michael Waterman, pointed out that his district, too, is seeing more students diagnosed with depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, suicidal ideations and eating disorders.
While these afflictions may routinely happen with any school district, professional organizations associated with the treatment of children and adolescents say that the numbers are going up.
“As health professionals dedicated to the care of children and adolescents in Rhode Island, we have witnessed soaring rates of mental health challenges among children, adolescents, and their families over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, exacerbating the situation that existed prior to the pandemic,” they said in a joint statement.
It was put out by the Rhode Island Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, Rhode Island Council for Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Hasbro Children’s Hospital and Bradley Hospital.
Rates of childhood mental health concerns and suicide rose steadily between 2010 and 2020 and by 2018 suicide was the second leading cause of death for youth ages 10 to 24 years old, the organizations said.
“According to the 2019 Rhode Island Youth Risk Behavior Survey, 15 percent of Rhode Island high school students reported attempting suicide one or more times in the 12 months before the survey was administered,” they said in their statement.
The pandemic has intensified this crisis and the health professionals said significant increases have occurred in hospital emergency department visits for all mental health emergencies, including suspected suicide attempts, they said.
Beyond the Covid pandemic, they also said “inequities that result from structural racism have contributed to disproportionate impacts on children from communities of color at the same time as racial and ethnic diversity has increased in Rhode Island and is projected to rise in the future.”
Both South Kingstown and North Kingstown school officials said that they also have student groups similar to the one in Narragansett raising awareness among students of mental health issues.
In Narragansett, the student “Peer-to-Peer Mental Health Group” receive training in understanding any number of mental health issues and how to approach others about them.
“There are about a dozen students who have come up with their own ideas for a campaign to target their NHS peers in ways they see fit,” Blessing said. “Our P2P youth group planned in Instagram account to get the word out using social media.”
Among the awareness groups activities are bulletin boards encouraging healthy ways to reduce stress and an organized effort called “Wellness Wednesdays” that encourage finding an activity — such as walking, yoga, meditation, journaling, disc golf, art therapy, cooking, boxing — to break away from stress.
Pencils, stickers, keychains, and stress balls were given to those wearing green to promote Mental Health Awareness month. In addition, a banner hangs all month in the school lobby to promote the idea of mental health care, Blessing said.
“For the month of May, our P2P group asked all students to ring in the month wearing green for awareness, and many students did on May 2, and we will do it again on May 31,” she said.
In South Kingstown, according to Charity Shea, grant funds are also paying for training staff and to purchase materials to support students. They also have a program similar to Narragansett’s and North Kingstown’s.
“This year our main project included Pierre the P2P bear,” she saids. “This is a large teddy bear with a backpack filled with information and resources that has been making its way around to different classrooms at SKHS.”
It carried with it a “You’ve been Pierred” tagline and the bear spends a week in one classroom serving as the club’s mascot and getting the word out about the group’s initiatives, she said.
There also are monthly events in the lunchroom and posters to reinforce the group’s purpose.
“During the last week of May for Mental Health Awareness Month, we will be having various “lunch and learn” activities that promote awareness, reduce stigma and connect students to resources,” Shea said.
Other Forms of Support
Shea said South Kingstown has a system to provide support when a student needs it.
As part of that framework, for example, a mental health provider may support a student through a check and connect intervention, which creates an opportunity each day for that student to connect with one adult in the building where a positive and supportive relationship is established, she said.
“This relationship allows the student to feel connected to school, and the result is usually a more engaged and successful student,” she said. “The work we have moving forward is to move to a model where all staff understand and can support a student’s mental health needs.”
Support takes on different forms, including modified instruction, assistance outside the classroom and tailoring approaches to a specific student’s individual needs.
“Across the district, there has been an increase in students refusing to attend school due to anxiety, and we have a team working to implement interventions to support this need.” Shea said. “Beyond the school district, we are seeing an increased demand for outside counseling support, and families are struggling with finding providers who accept new clients and meet in person.”
North Kingstown’s Interim Superintendent Michael Waterman said that his school system uses the Say Something Anonymous Reporting System in addition to a P2P program for middle and high school students.
The Say Something initiative enables students to anonymously report an issue 24/7/365 through an online app, hotline, or website when they see a classmate who is at risk of harming themselves or others.
“In addition, parents, teachers, staff and students bring concerns to our school psychologist and social workers and sometimes guidance,” he said.
The school system also contracts for student assistant counselors who help those struggling with substance abuse.
“But mostly we are proactive with social skills groups as well as social and emotional learning curriculum designed to promote a safer and supportive school environment,” Waterman said.
Narragansett High School psychologist Jon Kimpton noted two critical reasons for intervening to address a student’s mental health issue for the well-being of the student and others.
Officials want to prevent suicide and harm to others, to treat mental health issues and improve functioning, quality of life, and potential for future success and well-being, he said.
“Improvements (are also) needed in access/quality of care/expanding range of intensity of mental health treatment within the healthcare system throughout the state, communication between healthcare providers and educational personnel,” he said.