By Kassie Parisi
CLIFTON PARK — School board members for the Shenendehowa Central School District met with parents in a first-time public forum to discuss the mental health options available to students across all grades.
On Oct. 24, board members answered parent questions about specific mental health services as well as detailing what the district plans to do to continue to combat growing mental health issues.
The district, said Director of Policy and Community Development Rebecca Carman, has seen an increase in the mental health needs of its students over the last few years. Students, she added, are usually diagnosed with various mental health issues between the ages of 8 and 15.
Defining mental health, Carman added, is something that the district has to continuously tackle. As the terminology associated with mental health shifts, Shen has to take care to accommodate the needs of each specific child, as opposed to employing blanket terms to address widespread problems, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
For at least three years, Shen has maintained a partnership with the Saratoga Center for the Family. The center has an office on the Shen campus at Shatekon Elementary, and provides mental health counseling to students. The district also partners with CAPTAIN Youth and Family Services, and Wellspring of Saratoga.
Site-based programs, Carman said, lead to more immediate intervention, as well as the ability to keep students focused on school and integrated into the community.
Shen is also focusing on training teachers and other school staff members to notice red flags in students, and making sure that they are able to deal with them. If teachers know how to deal with the mental health issues that might keep a student from focusing in class, Carman said, it is more likely that the teacher will be able to keep that student from shutting down during school.
Parent concerns expressed at the forum included the high numbers of students assigned to a single counselor at different grade levels, and the ability of the district to get information out to parents about pop culture phenomenons that might negatively affect kids, such as the Netflix series “13 Reasons Why,” which is about teen suicide.
At the end of the forum, district Superintendent Oliver Robinson emphasized that, while they can also continue to discuss the funding provided for mental health services, the district itself can only do so much. The school plans to play an advocacy part, he said, but the community could serve as a much more powerful player.
Robinson urged community members to advocate for making mental health services a funding priority at the federal level.
“While we all want to do more, the reality is, we can only do so much,” he said of the district.
He added that kids who are struggling with mental health issues that go unaddressed may become unreachable eventually, culminating often with incarceration or worse.
“Either we’re going to pay a hell of a price later, or we try to advocate right now,” he said. “And that’s what you as a community can do. You have voices, as a community.”