‘COVID has made it much worse’: Shrewsbury officials share data on student mental health crises

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Shrewsbury High School is over capacity in terms of enrollment, with 1,875 students currently learning in a building built for 1,475. Photo/Dakota Antelman
Shrewsbury High School students recently talked with School Committee members on how students are managing stress and anxiety.
(Photo/Dakota Antelman)

SHREWSBURY – There have been at least 19 Shrewsbury Public Schools students hospitalized for mental health crises so far this year, according to Superintendent Joseph Sawyer. 

The topic arose as part of a larger presentation Sawyer gave to the School Committee on Jan. 5 about COVID-19. 

“As we’ve talked all throughout the pandemic, we have to balance the risks that exist,” Sawyer said. “We know there are risks associated with COVID-19, but we also know there are risks to students’ mental and social and emotional health and their academic progress if they’re not in school or if schools are closed or we go to remote learning.” 

To the district’s knowledge, no district students or staff members have been hospitalized this school year due to COVID-19, Sawyer said.

True hospitalization data may be higher than estimate

Sawyer said he gathered this hospitalization data by talking with principals. The true number may be higher, he said.

“That’s not unique to Shrewsbury,” he added. “There’s a mental health crisis among young people in our nation. There was a crisis that had emerged prior to COVID, and COVID has made it much worse.” 

An additional 17 students have been recommended for hospitalization but not admitted either because the family decided to pursue an alternative option or because programming wasn’t available. 

Roughly 60 students were referred for emergency mental health services, and 40 families have sought mental health referrals through William James College’s INTERFACE Referral Service. 

“Our primary function as a school district is to promote student wellbeing as well as learning, but our schools also function as a really key part of our society’s infrastructure. We certainly have heard that loud and clear during the pandemic,” Sawyer said. 

If schools are closed, even if learning continues remotely, such closures have a “massive impact on families,” Sawyer said.

School Committee previously discussed mental health

This is not the first time the conversation of mental health has arisen at a School Committee meeting. 

School Committee member Jason Palitsh noted on Nov. 10 that he had seen and heard anecdotal comments that, after school reopenings from COVID-19 shutdowns, individuals were feeling stressed and “not interacting with one another [as] well compared to pre-pandemic times.”

He asked the district’s Student Advisory Committee about their assessment of the general mood, level of interaction and whether students were able to cope with stress and anxiety they were feeling. 

Chairperson and Shrewsbury High School senior Nikitha Ram said every grade has different amounts of stress that they go through. 

“I think that the transition from the remote [learning] to the in-person caused a little bit more stress in general from what I’ve seen,” Ram said. 

Senior Rishab Parikh said being in school for five days a week helped him. He said there are more resources available in school.

Some members discussed the workload and the adjustment from remote and hybrid learning back to an in-person format.  

Senior Anushka Mukhopadhyay said the workload increased, saying it was an adjustment. 

She said she appreciated the return of certain activities, including badminton club and the tennis team, among other after-school programs.

“Those balance out the stressors,” she said.

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