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By Theresa Daly
Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, teen mental health was already a growing concern. Then, as schools closed for distance learning and children were isolated at home, away from their peers and extracurricular activities, data shows that their mental health worsened.
According to an April 2022 report by the Children’s Hospital Association, between March and October 2020 (the height of the pandemic):
- The percentage of children visiting the emergency room for mental health issues rose 24% for children ages 5-11 and 31% for children ages 12-17,
- Emergency room visits for self-injury and suicidal ideation and attempts in children ages 5-18 at a 42% higher rate than during the same time in 2019, and
- There was a 50% increase in emergency department visits for suspected suicide attempts among girls ages 12-17 in early 2021, as compared to the same period in 2019 (1).
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported suicide as being the second leading cause of death among teens in 2020, a 31% rise from 2019 (2).
In December 2021, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy issued an advisory declaring a mental health crisis for American children, citing an alarming number of young people were struggling with feelings of helplessness, depression, and thoughts of suicide (3).
Here in Rhode Island, in 2021, 467 teenagers were admitted to a health care emergency center after a suicide attempt, compared to 334 in 2020. Three-quarters of those attempting suicide were girls. Keep in mind, those numbers reflect only the children who were admitted. Bradley Hospital’s 24-hour hotline, called Kids Link Rhode Island, saw a doubling of calls between fiscal year 2019 and fiscal 2021 – from 4,849 to 9,702 (4).
Right here in East Greenwich, Dr. Cindy Klipfel of East Greenwich Pediatrics, the practice I take my own children to, stated in an article recently published by the Providence Journal that she has witnessed a “profound” shift in the care that pediatricians provide; the level and degree of mental health issues pediatricians are seeing is “astronomical” and it has become a crisis (5).
So, what has our School Committee and district done to address this mental health crisis? Good question….
The American School Counselor Association recommends a ratio of 1 Guidance Counselor to 250 students (6). Interestingly, for the 2020-21 academic year, the national average was 1:415 and Rhode Island’s average was 1:414.
So how did East Greenwich Public Schools fare? Well, let’s see. Per the RIDE Report Card (7), here are the number of students per school (as of 10/1/2020):
- Frenchtown: 232
- Meadowbrook: 270
- Eldredge: 296
- Hanaford: 269
- Cole: 639
- EGHS: 809
Total District Students: 2,515
According to the Faculty and Staff Directory currently posted on the EGPS website (www.egsd.net), below is a breakdown of Guidance Counselors, Psychologists, Social Workers, and SROs.
Guidance Counselors – 6 total
- Cole Middle School: 2 for 639 students equals a ratio of 1:319
- EG High School: 4 for 809 students equals a ratio of 1:202
Psychologists – 3 total
- 1 Psychologist shared between Hanaford and Meadowbrook
- 1 Psychologist shared between Eldredge and Frenchtown
- 1 Psychologist for Cole
Social Workers – 3 total
- 1 Social Worker shared between Frenchtown and Meadowbrook
- 1 Social Worker shared between EGHS, Cole, Hanaford, and Eldredge
- 1 Social Worker for the district
Resource Officer – 1 total
- 1 SRO at EGHS [Editor’s note: According to Police Chief Brown, there are two SROs, one at Cole and one at the high school.]
Using COVID funds, a Director of MTSS (Multi-Tiered Support Services, www.egsd.net/mtss) position was created for the 2021-2022 school year. The position was originally filled by our former Meadowbrook Farms Principal, Neil Marcaccio, who has now moved on to the Director of Student Services role.
It’s important to point out here that MTSS is a framework for educators to recognize student academic and behavior challenges, allowing teachers to intervene early and provide targeted support to struggling students. It really has nothing to do with providing specific mental health support to students.
So, what do we do about the mental health of students while they are in the care and concern of our schools?
As you can see from the ratios/staffing numbers I shared above, the current East Greenwich Public Schools support system is overwhelmed, and it’s at no fault of the staff; the School Committee did not
take appropriate steps to put proper mental health support in place, even though East Greenwich parents expressed concern about those exact things.
While I could never complain about their adding of FTEs such as a Psychologist or Social Worker, our students need intervention and support right now; our psychologists and social workers have caseloads and students aren’t able to get access to them on their own.
To address that, I would like to see each school have at least one (registered) behavior counselor/technician, who can be accessible to students and provide much-needed relief to guidance counselors. While these new staff members would not be in a traditional “counseling” role nor meant to replace guidance counselors, they would be accessible to a student and would be there for intervention, de-escalation, and general support.
According to Indeed.com, the typical salary for a behavior technician is about $39,869 per year. If we were to employ one per school, it would be an annual expense of $239,214 (not including benefits, etc.). If we were to spread that out over the number of students in our district, the cost per student would essentially be $95 but the benefit to them is priceless.
In my research, I have found that districts across the country are hiring individuals for these types of roles in order to accommodate the increased need and demand for mental health support – 70% of students who receive mental health services do so through their public school system.
When a student does not receive adequate support for their mental health needs, it can be a very significant obstacle to not only their emotional and social development, but to their academics. And unfortunately, we are seeing that when a student’s mental health needs are ignored or dismissed, it can compromise the safety of the schools and the community.
The School Committee knew mental health was an issue last school year, and they knew it was an issue when they budgeted for this school year. When I am elected to the School Committee, I will be addressing this issue and working with my fellow committee members, district administrator, and the community so that we can put a plan together to get these students the help they need.
Thank you for your time and consideration.
Theresa Daly is a candidate for election to the East Greenwich School Committee.
1 “Communities in Need: Legislation to Support Mental Health and Well‐Being.” Children’s Hospital Association Statement for Record, 5 April 2022, https://www.childrenshospitals.org/‐/media/files/public‐ policy/mental_health/letters/2022/eandc_communities_in_need_hearing_sfr_040122.pdf.
2 “Suicidal Ideation and Behaviors Among High School Students — Youth Risk Behavior Survey, United States, 2019.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 21 Aug. 2020, www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/su/su6901a6.htm?s_cid=su6901a6_w.
3 “Communities in Need: Legislation to Support Mental Health and Well‐Being.” HHH.gov, 7 December 2021, www.hhs.gov/about/news/2021/12/07/us‐surgeon‐general‐issues‐advisory‐on‐youth‐mental‐health‐crisis‐ further‐exposed‐by‐covid‐19‐pandemic.html.
4 “Annual Rhode Island Kids Count report shows worsening mental health, learning conditions.” The Providence Journal, 16 May 2022, https://www.providencejournal.com/story/news/local/2022/05/16/pandemic‐has‐ worsened‐childrens‐mental‐health‐and‐learning‐ri‐kids‐count‐report‐2022/9785806002/.
5 “Rhode Island Children in Crisis: Why Doctors Have Declared a Mental Health Emergency.” Providence Journal, 20 May 2022, https://www.providencejournal.com/story/news/healthcare/2022/05/20/mental‐health‐crisis‐ rhode‐island‐children‐pandemic‐worsens‐depression‐suicide‐attempts/9675103002/.
6 “School Counselor Roles & Ratios.” American School Counselor Association, www.schoolcounselor.org/About‐ School‐Counseling/School‐Counselor‐Roles‐Ratios. Accessed 15 October 2022.
7 “RIDE Report Card.” Rhode Island Department of Education, 2020‐2021 data, https://reportcard.ride.ri.gov/202021/DistrictAccountability?DistCode=09.