Four high school students from Killingly often walk to their favorite park near their school to relax. It’s been tough being a teenager during the pandemic, but these four friends are still able to joke about how music helps them through tough days.
“Everyone at school always has headphones on,” said Calvin Sandberg, a high school student from Killingly. He explained that music plays a big role in their daily lives to help them feel less stressed. “Like 80% of the time, we walk down the halls, to get to where we need to be.”
His senior colleague Olivia McOsker agreed. “But if you forget your AirPods, the day is 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 tackle difficult problems. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said a third of high school students reported having poor mental health in 2020, and the latest reports show there’s a growing teenage mental health crisis.
Friends of Calvin and Olivia say they have become mental health advocates of their own, after the Killingly School Board rejected a free school-based mental health center in 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 high school student from Killingly, who started having bad anxiety in her freshman year. “They just shot the plan down like that, it really cost me. Mainly because we need 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 including a lack of transparency and an intrusion on parental rights.
Parents supporting the center filed a complaint with the state Department of Education, arguing that the school district had failed to provide mental health services to students in need. The department concluded that the complaint was substantial and opened an investigation. A report on the decision not to open a mental health center was due in October, but the State Board of Education now expects it to be released next month.
Senior Amelie van der Swaagh said if they had access to mental health support at school in the meantime, things would be better.
“I’ve struggled with anxiety all my life,” Amelie said. “And I realized that so many people around me that I care about need help, and either because they can’t afford a therapist or because they can’t go to their home. their parents or something like that.”
Mental health: a political issue?
One of the main concerns of critics who dismissed Killingly Mental Health Center was that parents would not be involved in the counseling process. This is despite the CT Association of School Based Health Centers recommending that Killingly create one or more centers because there are not enough local mental health services for children.
Based on the association’s report, Killingly is one of 21 cities recommended to establish school mental health centers and four centers in total have been recommended for Killingly High School, HH Ellis Technical High School, Killingly Intermediate School and Killingly Memorial School.
“When the council started talking about this 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 people. ‘students in the right way they need to,’ Olivia says.
School Mental Health Centers have existed in Connecticut since 1982. Currently, there are approximately 100 school health sites that specifically provide mental health services throughout Connecticut, according to the CT Association of School Based Mental Health Centers.
“It’s not a new concept,” said Dr. Lynn Linde, executive director of the American Counseling Association, who says states have been using this model for years.
Linde said what’s new is that mental health has become fodder for 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 he sends to teenagers is that you don’t matter. We know better,” Linde said. “And how you feel is not as important as what we think. And that only exacerbates the mental health crisis among teens.
Murderous student Oliva described a similar feeling.
“When the board said no, it felt like our struggles were invalidated and everything felt politicized. Mental illness doesn’t care what party you’re on, it will affect anyone,” said she declared.
Members of the Republican-run Killingly School Board did not respond to multiple interview requests. CT Public Radio has also reached out to Killingly High School for feedback on resources available for students in need.
“Our normal last year of school was eighth grade,” Olivia said. “Our four years of high school are all politicized, from the pandemic to mental health to climate change. We shouldn’t have to spend all our time fighting for our own rights.
A mannequin next door
Sandra Fairbairn, director of behavioral health operations at 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.
“Here the students can come in and meet the frontline person and let the clinician know they’re here,” she said. “It’s really important for students to be able to access it because it’s peace of mind for them.”
She declined to comment directly on the Killingly controversy. But Fairbairn said at her center, students first complete paperwork with family members. Both licensed clinicians follow the same rules as any doctor with minors, so parents are involved in the process.
“The appropriate consents are filled out, and they’re sent back, and then we put them into our system and get an appointment for them,” Fairbairn said.
“We’ve had no parental complaints, only success, no cost for nine years,” said Michael Morrill, a Putnam Democratic school board member who spoke at Killingly school board meetings about his experience. start-up of the center ten years ago.
“Generations has proven that parents are part of the process here. And I think the victims of this controversy are clearly our children.
Morrill said this is a generation of children who experience the stress of school shootings on social media, leading to growing concern about its effects on students.
“They’re just in such a different scope of need. As individual school districts, we cannot provide the level of help these children need,” he said. “The district’s partnership with Generations is a great way to provide that support.”
Ultimately, the high school kids in Killingly want a mental health center like their friends in the neighboring town.
“What is the difference between the children of Putnam and the children of Killingly? Alyssa said. “Why can’t the children of Killingly get the help we need? »
This story was originally published on October 21, 2022 by Connecticut Public Radio.