Shrewsbury school officials make mental health of students a top priority

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Shrewsbury school officials make mental health of students a top priority
Ashley Santiago, of the consulting firm Focus Schools, discusses the draft of the Shrewsbury School District’s “Strategic Plan 2023-2027” with the School Committee on March 29. (Photo/Bill Gilman)

SHREWSBURY – Challenges related to the overall mental, behavioral and emotional health of students in kindergarten through high school is a point of emphasis for the Shrewsbury Public Schools, as it makes plans for the 2023-24 school year and beyond.

Though not by design, the psychological well-being of students was a connecting thread through several agenda items at the March 29 School Committee meeting.

COVID-19, remote learning, online bullying, school overcrowding, an uptick in school shooting incidents across the country, worry over social issues and personal issues were touched on as just some of the mental health challenges being faced by students.

In his state of the schools report, Superintendent Joseph Sawyer referenced a report by the U.S. surgeon general, warning of a “youth mental health crisis” that has been building for several years but was exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Shrewsbury has not been immune from the crisis, according to Sawyer.

“It is not often that the surgeon general issues an actual advisory, but the surgeon general recently did, and it was about youth mental health,” he said.

Contributing factors, explained Sawyer, include personal trauma, lack of connection during the pandemic, social pressures and feelings of inadequacy and stress related to academic pressures/perfectionism/ post-high school success.

Sawyer spoke of the benefits and opportunities afforded students by modern technology. But he also highlighted specific items related to technology that he described as challenges to the well-being of students, including addiction to phones, access to disturbing content outside of school and social media dynamics.

“We have great filters here at school. But most students have a smartphone from a pretty young age. These days, there’s a lot of things they can access that can be quite disturbing,” said Sawyer.

Sawyer said the district is committed to providing “antidotes” to these issues for students. At the top of the list is “conveying a sense of belonging in the schools, based on unconditional acceptance.”

He also mentioned helping students develop a sense of purpose and fostering human connections with trusted adults and other students who share common interests.

“We also need to make sure we’re connecting with those students who don’t share common interests. Because breaking down barriers between people who think differently or have different interests and different perspectives is something our society needs more of,” said Sawyer, stressing a keystone philosophy of the district. “We know that ‘Diversity, Belonging, Inclusion and Equity,’ it’s not an extra. It has to be part of the fabric of what we do. They actually support educational excellence and well-being.”

In discussing a draft of the school district’s “Strategic Plan 2023-2027,” Ashley Santiago, of the consulting firm Focus Schools, said “enhanced wellbeing of all” was one of three foundational elements of the plan. She said it’s something Shrewsbury had prioritized in its most recent strategic plan and, from the firm’s research and stakeholder interviews, needed to be included again.

“We wanted to show that it was continuing to be a commitment,” said Santiago. “It’s not just a bunch of new initiatives, but a lot of it is building on the work that’s already happening.”

Later in the meeting, members of the mental health and clinical services resources team met with the committee to provide a report on the status of the mental, behavioral and emotional health of students in the district. Their message echoed that of Sawyer, stressing the urgency of addressing the emotional and mental health challenges faced by students in the district.

Jamie Millett, the district’s new director of counseling and mental health, referenced data from the 2021 Shrewsbury High School Regional Youth Health Survey. While the 2023 survey data was not yet available, she said the 2021 data showed that Shrewsbury students were dealing with the same types of mental health issues as students across the country.

“Adolescent, student mental health is a crisis that we are all dealing with,” said Millett.

The data from the report indicated 38% of Shrewsbury High students reported feeling “sad or hopeless” almost every day for two or more weeks in a row. In addition, 17% had considered suicide, 11% had actually formulated a plan to commit suicide and five percent had attempted suicide at least once.

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