Mental Illness at East
Mental Health Initiatives at East – Aine Pierre (’20) and Sophia Liang (’19)
In December and January 2019, Eastside conducted a survey to gauge East students’ personal experience with mental illnesses and their opinions about how mental health is handled at school. The survey was distributed in the library and cafeterias, and the responses represent about 10% of the student body
across all four grade levels. It revealed that 56% of respondents know somebody with a mental illness, 20% have been professionally diagnosed with a mental illness and 7% have more than one. By far the most common mental illnesses are depression and anxiety, followed by OCD and eating disorders. Yet despite how prevalent mental health struggles are at East, students overwhelmingly believe the school is not doing enough to combat them; only 21% felt they could talk to an adult in the building about a mental health issue, and just 18% agreed that East supports their mental health needs.
Given these results, Eastside decided to learn more about the school’s mental health programs and investigate what East has done, is doing and plans to do to support students struggling with mental illnesses.
In 2001, the Cherry Hill Public School District was in the midst of a crisis. It had seen a drastic rise in suicide rates, including multiple incidents at Cherry Hill High School East. The reformations that began then would be part of a nearly decade-long process in which the district strived to better serve students with suicidal ideation and other mental health issues, according to Student Assistance Counselor Mrs. Jennifer DiStefano.
DiStefano, who has a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a master’s in counseling, was hired by the district in 2001 as administrators took an introspective look at their mental health policies. Afterwards, outside researchers and professionals from Columbia University reviewed the district’s curricula, school culture and other factors.
“Once we…had a little bit of an understanding of what was happening within the district, then we decided to hire a consultant,” said DiStefano. “They came in and…gave us feedback of what we needed to institute…to wrap around services for students that may be struggling with mental health issues.”
The district and researchers then identified three immediate things to change: curriculum, character and approachability. These tenets would form the foundation of a schoolwide emphasis on mental health education and support that continues to this day.
As far as curricula, the district implemented a Lifelines program on suicide prevention into eighth- and tenth-grade health. Although all health classes briefly touch on mental health and suicide prevention, according to DiStefano, the unit spans the course of a few weeks in eighth grade health and one week in tenth grade Driver’s Education.
“The reason why we chose tenth grade is…because nationwide, the onset of mental illness is usually around age 15, so that’s tenth grade,” said DiStefano. “[Students also] have it in eighth [to get] ready for the transition to high school and know what to look for in themselves and their friends.”
Based on role plays simulating real-life situations, Lifelines gives students the skills to find help for themselves or others who are having suicidal thoughts.
The district also moved quickly to improve character education in its 19 schools by encouraging volunteer work and club participation. DiStefano believes that all students can find their own niche at East, which helps create a sense of belonging at school that could positively affect students suffering from mental health issues.
“If someone feels like they belong to the community within school, that they have something to connect to….it might help [them] reach out if [they] are struggling,” she said.
Finally, the district sought to make professional mental health assistance more available to students, with a focus on emotional support staff. It hired student support counselors for middle schools and high schools to help with immediate mental health issues, and student advocates at the high school level to bridge the gap between school and home, per DiStefano.
DiStefano prides herself on her open-door policy. Students come to her from school nurse and teacher referrals and parent phone calls, but many arrive at the last office in the guidance hallway by themselves or with a friend. Depending on the case, DiStefano may simply give them a moment to sit and collect themselves, or she may refer them to outside counseling. She works with students’ families and teachers, who may not even realize that a child is struggling, to create the best plan possible for getting kids the help they need to return to the classroom happy and healthy.
“I kind of give [students] a little bit of a safety net to be able to manage their own emotions in other ways…so they can focus on school,” she said.
Another change made during the reform was that all teachers began to undergo training for the practice of Question, Persuade and Refer (QPR), which teaches them to refer students struggling with mental illness to the right places, as well as to be a guide to them in that immediate moment.
“Everybody…needs to be able to talk to students, listen to what’s going on and then make some type of referral,” said DiStefano. “If a student came to one of our staff members and they were struggling, the staff member would be trained on knowing what to do.” Any new member of district faculty receives the training, and returning faculty periodically receive refreshers.
Furthermore, the district began to offer mental health screenings to students. Today, the screenings are done in March of every school year in partnership with a company called Behavioral Health Works. With a parent or guardian’s consent, a student can make an appointment during school hours and take a confidential computer survey that screens for mental illnesses such as anxiety, depression, substance abuse and eating disorders.
“It’s a free service to students grades nine through twelve, so anyone can take it,” said DiStefano. “We have onsite clinicians, not from the district, but consultants that come in, and if the child screen[s] positive for any kind of mental illness, they would go over the screening with the child right there and then, and then make recommendations [for further action].”
For students who could benefit from ongoing therapy but lack access to mental health professionals, DiStefano recommends PerformCare, an organization that provides behavioral healthcare to New Jersey youth at no cost.
“They’ll come out and do an assessment within 24 to 48 hours, and sometimes they’ll do in-home counseling,” she said. “We’ve had some great success with them…it’s nice because they come to you, and it’s a free service.”
East also offers in-school therapeutic counseling for a small group of students with greater needs. These students, who must be recommended for the program, attend family and group therapy with a licensed therapist during school hours, sometimes on a daily basis. According to Principal Dr. Dennis Perry, this relatively uncommon program was introduced 8 to 10 years ago as a response to the high suicide rate in Cherry Hill, and it sets East apart from almost all other high schools in the nation.
“It’s an amazing program that we have here at the school,” Perry said. “We have students here that have benefited from it that maybe would not have been able to finish school, but [the therapist has] worked with them and helped them be better — be healthier — and be able to attend school.”
Overall, the district has found success, according to DiStefano. Since 2001, there have been substantially fewer suicide attempts and actual suicides. The district’s character education initiatives have earned it the distinction of 2018 National District of Character, an honor only awarded to five districts each year.
The district hopes that it has put its worst days almost two decades behind, but there is always work to be done in keeping students safe and secure, both mentally and physically. Of the survey respondents who reported struggling with their mental health, 40% have not had a positive experience speaking to an adult at school about their concerns. And even though the Lifelines program is implemented in tenth grade health, only 15% of juniors and seniors agreed that they have learned about suicide prevention at East.
Looking forward, Perry seeks to mitigate the stress caused by the competitive academic environment at East, which causes many students’ mental health to suffer. He encourages teachers to not confuse rigor with volume when assigning workloads and to promote the “growth mindset,” demonstrating to students the value of making mistakes and learning from them instead of expecting perfection on the first try. This year, he has introduced student body surveys so kids can give feedback on the school environment.
“We’re working…to try to elicit more student voice, so that things at school don’t just happen to students; they have a part in it,” he said. “Students need to feel that they are in control of what happens to them.”
Perry is also very interested in bringing in more professionals to expand the therapeutic counseling program, since the current therapist can only handle a caseload of 10 students. Above all, he emphasizes the need for communication between students, teachers and administration about mental health concerns so the school can meet students’ needs.
Coffeehouse Performances Raise Funds for Mental Health Services – Samantha Roehl (‘20)
On Saturday, January 19, many East students took to the stage to raise money for Project Semicolon and Oaks Integrated Care, two organizations dedicated to providing mental health services.
The acts, some of which revolved around the theme of mental illness, were a part of East’s twelfth annual Coffeehouse, an event hosted by East Singers and the Thespian Society every year to raise money for a cause. This event succeeded in raising over three thousand dollars.
To choose this year’s causes, students in East Singers and Thespian Society pitched ideas for the group to vote on. Kevin Naddeo (‘19), Thespian Society President, pitched the original idea of Project Semicolon, a national mental health organization that specializes in suicide prevention.
“Being a student in high school, I know that depression and anxiety and mental health affect a lot of students… I feel that if we use Coffeehouse’s power and presen[t] this cause, then maybe people [can] feel like it’s okay to talk about whatever they’re feeling,” said Naddeo.
Project Semicolon’s name derives from a semicolon’s use in writing. Founder Amy Bleuel has said that authors use semicolons to continue sentences that otherwise would have ended, and she ties that back to people’s choice to continue living.
“[Project Semicolon] is based on the belief that suicide is preventable and everyone has a role to play in preventing suicide,” read Cassie Cuddihy (‘19) from her cue cards onstage at Coffeehouse. “Through raising public awareness, educating communities and equipping every person with the right tools, they know that we can save lives.”
Coffeehouse also benefited Oaks Integrated Care, a local nonprofit that specializes in mental health and addiction services. Multiple representatives from Oaks attended Coffeehouse and spoke to the audience.
“The types of services we do [are] for intervention, crisis screening and addiction recoveries,” said Lawrence Schmidt, Chief Development and Communications Officer at Oaks Integrated Care. “The reality is that families of all ages and socioeconomic backgrounds often experience stresses and strains through the course of their life, particularly for teenage students and youth. And so whether it’s mental illness….or whether it’s drug addiction issues, there are resources that we have that can help people get a type of treatment to understand that there is a better way.”
Though the topic of mental illness can be very heavy, Coffeehouse went out of its way to have a more positive spin. With the tagline “just keep swimming” and a “Finding Dory” and Under the Sea theme, the tone was light and cheerful the whole night.
“We were talking about our cause, and it’s mental health awareness and suicide prevention, and we were trying to think about it in a more positive light,” said Cuddihy. “Instead of being a downer, it’s more like ‘keep looking forward,’ and ‘just keep swimming’ came to mind. Also, the Disney theme doesn’t hurt.”
Interact Club creates posters to promote mental health awareness – Aine Pierre (’20)
The East Interact Club will be hanging posters throughout the school in honor of Mental Health Awareness Month.
The posters, which will be lime green — a color representing teen mental health awareness — will display facts and quotes on mental health alongside a butterfly with a semicolon body. The semicolon is an important symbol for the mental health community, and it is commonly used to represent survival and perseverance.
“The more and more mainstream we get [mental health awareness] and the more facts to dispel all the myths…the more people will be understanding and open,” said Interact advisor Ms. Debbie Barr of what she hopes the posters will provide to the East community.
The idea to create posters to raise awareness for mental health issues, which follows other poster-hanging campaigns from Interact Club and other school organizations, came from Interact Fundraising Chair Cynthia Cheng (‘20).
“I thought it was important because mental health is something that not a lot of people know a lot about…” said Cheng. “Mental health is…not just suicide and depression; it’s a lot more.”
The poster campaign is a departure from previous Interact events for mental health, which focused more on raising funds for mental health organizations and have been sparsely attended, according to Barr.
The posters will be hung in the coming week.