New data highlights student mental health issues, Shrewsbury school staff say

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New survey data prompted discussion earlier this month about ongoing mental health concerns at Oak Middle School and Shrewsbury High School. (Photo/Dakota Antelman)

SHREWSBURY – Stress and anxiety continue to represent top issues for Oak Middle School and Shrewsbury High School students, according to newly released survey results.

Shrewsbury Director of Nursing Noelle Freeman presented this data to the School Committee on May 4.

This, in turn, came a matter of months after Superintendent Joseph Sawyer reported in January that at least 19 students had been hospitalized for mental health crises to date in the current school year.

“When we came back to school in the fall, we could not have anticipated the level of distress that some of our students are currently experiencing,” Freeman later said in a March 30 School Committee meeting.

In that March 30 meeting, district staff reported that a total of 73 students had been referred for mental health reasons to either emergency mental health, youth mobile crisis or emergency room care.

In total, Freeman said there has been a “marked increase” in the number of students with mental health challenges since the beginning of the school year.

That includes what officials in March described as “intense” feelings of stress and anxiety, depression, self harm and suicidal and homicidal ideation.

Survey results highlight concerns

According to the more recently presented Regional Youth Health Survey results collected in December of last year, 67% of surveyed SHS students reported that their mental health was “not good” at least sometimes during the pandemic.

At Oak, 40% of students reported some struggle with their mental health over the past 30 days.

The survey further indicated that 15% of Oak students were seriously considering suicide while 8% had a suicide plan and 3% had made a suicide attempt. At Oak, the number of students reporting non-suicidal self harm nearly doubled from 7% in 2019 to 13% in 2021.

“We are definitely seeing this play out in the number of students who are being seen by nurses and mental health professionals in the buildings for cutting injuries,” Freeman said.

At SHS, 38% of surveyed students reported feeling sad or hopeless over the last 12 months, which is an increase from 27% in 2019.

The data was further broken down by race and sexual orientation, with Freeman saying that the results indicate that students of color and students who identify as LGBTQ+ were at higher risk for anxiety, depression, suicide and other mental health concerns.

‘It’s O.K. to not be O.K.’

In March, district staff called for increased awareness and continued discussions with students and families about mental health.

They also recommended adding mental and behavioral staff and expanding Shrewsbury’s social and emotional learning tier one program, while supporting and expanding digital media literacy education efforts including monitoring children’s use of social media, among other things.

The School Committee in May said that this survey data supports the need for additional staff members that are being requested in the school district’s budget.

Assistant Director of Special Education and Pupil Personnel Services Meghan Bartlett said the district should be additionally partnering with families and community members to keep kids safe.

“We need to have conversations with our kids and have them know that there are steps out there to manage their mental health,” Bartlett said.

She encouraged families to talk to their students and acknowledge their feelings. Monitor their social media, she said.

She advocated for community members to seek out treatment providers and place their names on waitlists.

“It’s O.K. to not be O.K.” Bartlett said.

A full presentation on this mental health data can be seen from the School Committee’s May 4 meeting: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D_JZnw5-rO0

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Shrewsbury Public Schools have shared resources for those experiencing a mental health emergency. Resources include Youth Mobile Crisis Intervention Worcester (866-549- 2142), Emergency Mental Health Services (508-334-3562), the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-8255) and the Crisis Text Line (text HOME to 741741).

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