CT teens look to neighboring town as a model for mental health help

Four Killingly High School Seniors often walk to their favorite park near their school to hang out. It’s been rough being a teenager through the pandemic, but these four friends are still able to joke about how music helps them get through tough days.

“Everyone at school always has earbuds all the time,” said Calvin Sandberg, a senior at Killingly high. He explained that music plays a big role in their daily lives to help them feel less stressed. “Like 80% of the time we’re walking through the hallways, getting to where we need to be.”

Fellow senior Olivia McOsker agreed. “But if you forget your AirPods, then the day’s ruined,” Olivia said with a laugh. “Or if the AirPods die.”

“It’s immediately a bad day if the AirPods are dead,” Calvin said.

But these students also want to turn to something other than music to cope as they deal with tough issues. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said a third of high schoolers reported having poor mental health in 2020, and latest reports show there’s a teenage mental health crisis that’s only getting worse.

Calvin and Olivia’s friends say they have become their own mental health advocates, after Killingly’s Board of Education rejected a free school-based mental health center at the high school earlier this year.

“Things were stressful with all my AP [advanced placement] classes and thinking about college, but the anxiety started to get worse with the Board of Ed,” said Alyssa Caron, a Killingly high school senior, who started getting bad anxiety during her junior year. “Them just shooting the plan down like that, it really took a toll on me. Especially because we need the help.”

The school district received $3.2 million in federal COVID-19 relief funding to help set up the mental health center at Killingly High School. But the school board voted against the plan in March, citing reasons such as a lack of transparency and an intrusion on parental rights.

Parents in support of the center filed a complaint with the state Department of Education, arguing that the school district failed to provide mental health services to students in need. The department found the complaint to be substantial and opened an investigation. A report on the decision not to open a mental health center was expected in October, but the State Board of Education now expects it to be released next month.

Senior Amelie van der Swaagh said that if they had access to mental health support at school in the meantime, things would be better.

“I’ve battled anxiety all my life,” Amelie said. “And I realized that so many people around me who I care about, need the help, and either because they can’t afford a therapist, or they can’t go to their parents or something.”

Mental health: a political issue?

One major concern from critics who rejected the Killingly mental health center was that parents won’t be involved in the counseling process. That’s despite the CT Association of School Based Health Centers recommending that Killingly set up one or multiple centers because there aren’t enough local mental health services for kids.

Based on the association’s report, Killingly is one out of 21 towns recommended to set up school-based mental health centers and four centers total were recommended for Killingly High School, HH Ellis Technical High School, Killingly Intermediate School, and Killingly Memorial School.

“When the board first started talking about the possibility, we thought, OK maybe people are taking us seriously and I think all of our guidance counselors thought they were finally going to have resources to help more students in the correct way that they need,” Olivia said.

School-based mental health centers have been around Connecticut since 1982. Right now, there are approximately 100 school health sites that specifically provide mental health services across Connecticut, according to the CT Association of School Based Mental Health Centers.

“It’s not a new concept,” said Dr. Lynn Linde, an executive director for the American Counseling Association, who says states have been using this model for years.

Linde said what is new, is that mental health has become fodder in culture wars across the country. She said the lack of trust between parents and schools is polarizing in a way that didn’t exist 10 years ago.

“The message it sends to adolescents is that you don’t matter. We know best,” Linde said. “And what you’re feeling is not as important as what we think. And that only exacerbates the mental health crisis among adolescents.”

Killingly student Oliva described feeling similarly.

“When the board said no, it felt like our struggles were invalidated and the whole thing felt politicized. Mental illness doesn’t care what party you are, it will affect anybody,” she said.

Members of the Republican-led Killingly school board did not respond to multiple requests for an interview. CT Public Radio also reached out to Killingly High School for comment about what resources are available to students in need.

“Our last normal year of school was eighth grade,” Olivia said. “Our whole four years of high school is all politicized, from the pandemic to mental health to climate change. We shouldn’t have to spend all of our time fighting for our own rights.”

A model next door

Sandra Fairbairn, a behavioral health operations director with Generations Family Health, helps run the mental health center based at Putnam Middle School in a town next to Killingly.

The center is a typical office space, much like a nurse’s office, Fairbairn said. Beanbags and student artwork fill the space.

Visual representations of emotions can help those struggling to find the right words for their feelings. These are some that adorn the walls in the offices of Putnam’s school based health center. Tyler Russell/Connecticut Public

“Here, students can come in and meet with the front-end person, and let the clinician know that they’re here,” she said. “It’s really important for students to be able to access it because it’s a peace of mind for them.”

She declined to comment directly on the Killingly controversy. But Fairbairn said at her center, students fill out paperwork with family members first. The two licensed clinicians here follow all the same rules any doctor would have to with minors, so parents are involved in the process.

“Proper consents are completed, and it’s returned and then we get them into our system and get an appointment scheduled for them,” Fairbairn said.

“We have had zero parental complaints, only success, at no costs for nine years,” said Michael Morrill, a Democratic school board member in Putnam who has spoken out at Killingly school board meetings about his experience starting the center a decade ago.

“Generations has proved that here, that parents are a part of the process. And I think the victims of this controversy are clearly our kids.”

Morrill said this is a generation of kids that experiences stress from school shootings to social media, which leads to a growing concern on its effects on students.

“They are just in such a different scope of need. As individual school districts, we cannot provide the level of help that these kids need,” he said. “The partnership between the district and generations is a beautiful way to provide that support.”

At the end of the day, the high school students in Killingly want a mental health center like their friends in the next town over.

“What’s the difference with the Putnam kids versus the Killingly kids?” said Alyssa. “Why can’t Killingly kids get the help that we need?”

This story was originally published on Oct. 21, 2022, by Connecticut Public Radio.

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