Students and staff say Worcester schools lack sufficient mental health resources
Lindsey Leitko is relieved to be graduating from high school next month.
The past few years have been tough for the Doherty High School student. She suffers from anxiety and depression, in part due to her parents’ divorce, and has been hospitalized three times in the past year for fear of taking her own life.
When Leitko becomes anxious at school, she often visits a mental health counselor on campus to calm down and talk things through. But Leitko says that throughout her high school experience, the counselor was often busy with other students and usually waits a while before being seen.
“Just a few weeks ago, I was in crisis and struggling with urges to hurt myself. And just waiting for this hour and a half made it worse,” Leitko said. “If you are really in crisis and need someone to talk to, you should be able to come straight in.”
It’s a familiar refrain from Worcester public school students, who say the district doesn’t have enough counselors, psychologists and other resources to help them deal with mental health issues. Members of the Worcester Public Schools Committee recently raised similar concerns and called on the district to expand mental health resources in schools. But outgoing superintendent Maureen Binienda pushed back, arguing that students are getting the help they need.
“It is very frustrating”
The disagreement between the superintendent and committee members comes at a particularly trying time for students, parents and school staff.
The American Pediatric Association, Association of Children’s Hospitals, and American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry have declared a national emergency for children’s mental health and are calling on government officials to increase funding and other support. The coalition of pediatric health experts said adolescent mental health has already been declining steadily over the past decade, but during the COVID-19 pandemic, grief, stress and depression among children have soared .
“The whole universe is telling us that we have a bigger problem,” said Worcester school board member Tracy O’Connell Novick. “I know schools need more resources.
O’Connell Novick said she regularly hears from students, parents and staff who are dissatisfied with the district’s response to the mental health crisis. Schools in Worcester need more psychologists and special education counselors who specialize in mental wellbeing, she said, adding that children shouldn’t have to wait in line for advice.
District psychologist Kim McLaren agrees. She said staff are often overwhelmed with students experiencing mental health emergencies that take disruptive forms, such as tantrums and fights. Lack of resources prevents teachers and counselors from helping other students who are anxious and depressed, but do not affect other students or staff. McLaren wants staff to be less reactive and more proactive.
“It’s very frustrating,” she said. “We are all so busy putting out the fires. We need to be able to go into classrooms daily to teach students coping skills, emotion regulation skills, and social skills.
Mental health issues in schools came to a head at a Worcester school board meeting earlier in May.
Superintendent staff presented a report showing the number of Worcester students referred to a local youth crisis response service this year was about the same as the year before the pandemic began . Binienda said the district is doing everything it can to help students’ mental health.
“Yes, in every school you might have one or two students who are struggling emotionally,” she said. “Every district is dealing with students who are struggling. … We are not on fire.
District officials say Worcester Public Schools has about 90 mental health specialists — known as special education counselors — who are assigned to different schools. Binienda recommended the district hire four new adjustment counselors to help meet student needs.
His comments at the meeting drew fiery reactions from some committee members. O’Connell Novick and Jermaine Johnson suggested that the district’s data does not capture children struggling with mental health issues but who have not been referred to emergency departments, and added that the district would potentially have need more than four new advisers.
“It’s really, really disappointing to me that this is the response we’re getting,” O’Connell Novick said during the reunion. “If we don’t admit that we actually have mental health issues in our schools, we can’t actually work to fix them.”
Next steps for the neighborhood
Binienda will retire in June, and her successor, Rachel Monárrez, recently told GBH News that she will make student mental health a priority when she takes over on July 1.
Still, Binienda’s next few weeks at the helm of Worcester Schools will have lasting effects as the district works to finalize a budget for its next fiscal year. The budget could include funding for more mental health counselors, psychologists and other efforts to help improve students’ mental wellbeing.
O’Connell Novick said Binienda also had time to implement some emergency measures to immediately help students struggling with mental health issues. They could include creating a temporary safe space on school campuses where students can calm down if they are experiencing a mental health issue.
“You could take the resources that we have and potentially reallocate them to at least get through the rest of the school year,” O’Connell Novick said. “Any day can be too many days for a child going through a mental health crisis…especially, children who are on the verge of harming themselves.”
GBH News spoke to Binienda, who insisted there was no rush.
“Students don’t wait too long for help in schools,” Binienda said. “Schools meet the needs of students.
Mars is a student from Worcester who has witnessed the difference more mental health resources can make in a school. GBH News does not include the full name of Mars due to the sensitivity of its experiments.
Mars is a victim of sexual assault. He suffers from anxiety and depression and has doctor-approved school accommodation that allows him to take 10-minute breaks when he is overwhelmed. At South High Community School, he said teachers and administrators routinely berate him if his breaks last a few minutes. And he said he rarely received support from mental health counselors because lines of students waiting to talk to them were common.
“It was really upsetting,” Mars said. “I was helpless to get change or get support.”
A few months ago, Mars was transferred to the Gerald Creamer Center, an alternative high school that welcomes vulnerable students who have already dropped out of school or who have behavioral or emotional problems. Mars said Gerald Creamer has been more flexible when he needs to get out of class and has given him more access to advice. He wishes more schools in Worcester were like this.
“It’s been fantastic,” he said. “[Gerald Creamer is] able to really take care of each student and make sure we are doing really well.
If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) or use the Crisis Text Line by texting “Home” to 741741. Other Resources are available at SpeakingOfSuicide.com/Resources.