Courtesy of Sequella Coleman

The Board of Alders’ Education and Youth Committees held a joint meeting to discuss how the pandemic had exacerbated youth mental health during the pandemic, stretching available resources amidst staffing shortages.

On Wednesday, six speakers from the Cornell Scott-Hill Health Center, the Clifford Beers nonprofit and the New Haven Public Schools System shared details of their respective work to respond to youth mental health issues. After the presentations, speakers fielded questions from alders about their plans for youth outreach, the expansion of mental health treatment and access to resources for parents and teachers. 

“There is treatment, and this is temporary, and there is hope,” said Ece Tek, Chief Medical Officer of Mental Health and Addiction Services at Cornell Scott-Hill. “We have to educate our parents, we have to educate and provide support for our teachers, we have to normalize mental health issues.”

Tek said that the Hill Center saw an increase in youth mental health visits over the course of the pandemic, as 18 months of social distancing heightened the prevalence of adolescent behavioral issues. To respond to the changing needs of the youth, Tek said that professionals must work to end the stigma within families around receiving mental health treatment.

Tek recommended expanding the role of school social workers and providing teachers with the resources to screen for mental health issues among students.

“Teachers can serve as the doorway for identification and referral to specialty mental health providers. They have a role as the catalysts between parents and kids,” Tek said.

Cornell Scott-Hill still faces difficulties in providing all the needed mental healthcare, as the demand for mental health resources and professionals currently exceeds the resources available. Tek informed the gathered alders that the Center is currently looking to hire social workers, with an emphasis on people of color.

Cara Manzari and Kerry-Ann Frank, representing Clifford Beers, spoke next. Clifford Beers is a New Haven-based nonprofit that provides families with access to mental and behavioral health services. According to Frank, Clifford Beers works with nine elementary and middle schools and four public schools to implement mental health services for students.

The Clifford Beers directors presented a slide show explaining their tiered approach to mental health outreach in the community. Manzari explained that the third tier of their strategy includes one-to-one support for children and care coordination for families, while the second tier includes educator training programs and clinical interventions at school. The first tier includes social-emotional learning education, as well as training for students, school staff and caregivers on mental health responses. 

Manzari said, “We always try to engage and empower our families to partner with schools, staff, and other providers… schools are our number one priority.”

For the final hour of the meeting, administrators at the New Haven Public Schools system presented their response to youth mental health needs. 

Gemma Joseph Lumpkin, Chief of Youth, Family and Community Engagement at NHPS, emphasized the importance of mobilizing school staff to support children during the pandemic.

“All hands are on deck: principals, assistant principals, school counselors, school social workers, in-school suspension workers are sitting and meeting and looking at student-by-student and trying to figure out what kind of response we can bring to the table,” Joseph Lumpkin said.

Still, NHPS Superintendent Iline Tracy said that the school system currently faces a staffing shortage, making it difficult to meet the needs of all students. Nevertheless, Tracy said that the district hired more teachers during the pandemic to reduce class sizes and give each student more individualized attention.

The NHPS will adopt a phased plan to promote long-term mental health support and academic success for at-risk students, with each phase focusing on the developmental needs of different groups of students. Much of the plan will focus on building relationships between students and older mentors, as the closure of schools during the pandemic left many students without positive role models, according to Supervisor of Youth Development and Engagement Kermit Carolina.

“We know that they’ve returned to us with a lot of habits that they’ve developed out in the community, [there’s] a lot of neglect coming from homes,” said Carolina. “We’re looking to take adults and college students, and have them work with our high school students, and use our high schoolers to help as mentors with our middle schoolers.”

The NHPS has partnered with several community-based organizations, including Clifford Beers, to train teachers to respond to students’ mental health problems and provide schools with health resources. 

The Board of Alders’ Education Committee will hold its next meeting on Monday, Oct. 25.

MEGAN VAZ