OPINION: In the bleak midwinter, let’s prioritize mental health



By Lorraine Connelly

This past week marked the ninth anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, that took the lives of 20 children and 6 adults in one of the deadliest school shootings in U.S. history. 

While we’ve seen more anti-gun-violence legislation passed in the last 10 years since that incident, it’s clearly not enough. Last month, another mass shooting occurred at Oxford High School in Michigan. Before that incident, the 15-year-old suspect drew a disturbing picture of a gun, a bullet, and someone bleeding, and wrote that his “thoughts won’t stop, help me,” and “the world is dead.”

In Connecticut, schools in Hamden, Norwich, and Manchester have been monitoring threats of violence in the wake of the shootings in Michigan. Fran Rabinowitz, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents, recently told the Courant, “Superintendents across the state are incredibly concerned. No superintendent wants to close a school, but if there is a threat, we don’t have a choice.”

It’s no coincidence that last week U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy issued an advisory highlighting the urgent need to address our nation’s youth mental health crisis. “Mental health challenges in children, adolescents, and young adults are real and widespread. Even before the pandemic, an alarming number of young people struggled with feelings of helplessness, depression, and thoughts of suicide — and rates have increased over the past decade,” said the surgeon general.

Even more reason why school districts should allocate funding for students’ mental and physical well-being. The Wallingford Town Council’s decision last month to deny Superintendent of Schools Danielle Bellizzi and Business Manager Dominic Barone’s request for a transfer of unused funds to go back into the Board of Education budget was disappointing. Among the list of projects to be completed with the funding — security vestibules at 10 schools. 

It’s high time to stop being cavalier about educational spending and not be so quick to trim budgets that some perceive as “education pork.” What if there was a concerted effort to use surplus funds to address the mental health needs of Wallingford students?

Wallingford Superintendent Bellizzi in a recent email notes, “Staff and students continue to adjust to school following the 2020-2021 school year. We are confident with time and continued focus on prioritizing social-emotional instruction and mental health support, staff and students will begin to thrive. While providing emotional support is critical, it is also important to provide physical safety features.”

In some school districts in Connecticut there are not enough mental health professionals and staff to address student needs. Wallingford Democratic Board of Education candidate and assistant principal of curriculum at Cheshire High School Maureen Reed has witnessed a greater need to focus on student social adjustments since the return to in-person learning. She says, “Students are not used to the formal structure of school, as we knew it, prior to the Spring of 2020. Everyone (students, parents, educators) was so excited to return in person, but we didn’t realize that it would be a struggle for students to recapture their pre-Covid work habits.” 

Reed adds, “Students have become lax at study skills, organization, being on time, and simple social etiquette while passing in buildings. There have been behavior issues in schools nationwide (one district in Connecticut recently went remote because of behavior issues). Some students are school-avoidant after being remote or attending school in cohorts every other day or half days last year. To help students move forward out of the bleak reality of the last two years, we need to recognize, validate, and support their emotional health.” 

Of course, an easy fix is to construct security vestibules, which keep the flow of people in and out of school buildings to a minimum. But we can’t rely on this measure alone. Says Reed, “We need to invest in the area that does not come as comfortably to some people — mental health.  Mental health is not easily understood, nor does it ever have an easy answer, which is why we avoid it, until it leads to something like school violence.”  

It’s clear that a coordinated effort needs to be made to address children’s mental health needs at the state and district level. This will require more resources dedicated to this issue, particularly through the hiring of more social workers/school psychologists and creating programs to manage the fall-out from the pandemic. Even more reason that town officials consider educational funding as a “hand-up” not a “hand-out,” so that our young people can feel secure in their futures, not bleak, but bright with the promise and possibility.

Lorraine Connelly is a writer and Wallingford resident.

 



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