Mental health collaborative aims to help students cope
RED HOOK — Politicians tend to stress “learning loss” when they speak of the educational system’s recent upheavals related to the pandemic and lockdowns, but it’s more nuanced than that, claimed Jack Costello, director of pupil personnel services (PPS) for the Red Hook Central School District (RHCSD).
“Academic expectations have not changed,” Costello pointed out, “and yet the social-emotional needs of our kids have exploded. And the reality is that the other academic piece is for nought if they’re not emotionally stable to receive it.”
This situation and the remedies for it formed the core of a busy day for the Northern Dutchess Community and School Collaborative.
A highly engaged group of about 50 professionals in various mental health fields from the communities and school districts of Red Hook, Rhinebeck and Pine Plains gathered for a sixth meeting of the Collaborative in RHCSD’s performing arts center on Superintendent’s Conference Day on Friday, March 10.
Titled “Day of Learning and Connection to Support Mental Health,” the seven-hour event featured speakers who laid out the scope of the problems, after which the 50 or so attendees participated in roundtables and breakout hands-on workshops punctuated with breaks and a lunch provided by the districts.
Topics included counseling LGBTQIA+ students and families, systems of care, art as a therapeutic medium, stress reduction, and biofeedback.
The welcome by Costello and Rhinebeck PPS director Emily Davison was followed by keynote speaker Dr. Theresa Yonker, a holistic psychiatry provider in Red Hook. The heart of the presentation was that dysregulation is rampant among students, and that practices that could remedy its various aspects were not being put into play. Her message was, like many during the day, one of optimism in the face of the challenges.
For the non-specialist, dysregulation is defined as “abnormality or impairment in the regulation of a metabolic, physiological, or psychological process.” The example given in this Oxford Languages definition is “family dysfunction may contribute to emotional dysregulation.”
Family dysfunction was one of the aspects discussed, whether it be caused by difficulties of employment, lack of affordable housing or domestic violence, to name a few. “We don’t know what losses children have at home,” Yonker said, but noted that, all too frequently, “there are many.”
Yonker reiterated Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, stressing that until the more basic requirements for physiological and safety needs are met, the higher goals of connection, esteem and self-actualization are unlikely to be achieved.
Classroom teachers were not represented at the Collaborative, but the school psychologists and social workers whose duty it is to calm students and sometimes defuse problem behaviors gave examples of the status quo, with strengths and resources as well as challenges presented by each attendee.
“Some kids are on four medications,” one noted, echoing Yonker’s tale of how psychiatry — quite suddenly several decades ago, the psychiatry she had trained in — became much more involved in pharmaceuticals. She pointed to other more holistic approaches, including a healthy diet, physical activity in nature and meditation, to name a few.
The challenges are many
Pine Plains PPS director Janine Babcock started the high school roundtable with a statement readily agreed on by all — “Our jobs are hard, and have gotten harder in the last few years” — but she recognized and commended everyone’s will to look for solutions to the challenges.
High school personnel spoke of the lack of time built into the day to communicate with multiple teachers involved with a particular student, of being overwhelmed with meetings that are not necessarily relevant to them, and of administrators who don’t necessarily know what it is that PPS staff do. For students, barriers include lack of time for the “hidden curriculum” of friendships.
Social media and its many impacts came up time and again; one participant pointed out that students are inundated with far too many things external to them when what they really need is to go inward, to learn about themselves, as well as to go out in nature.
Ashley Walko of Infinity Mental Health in New Paltz spoke of the many referrals she gets from east of the Hudson, of the struggle helping teens to unplug and of helping parents to enforce limits so that teens are not online all night, leading to the kind of metabolic dysregulation broached in Yonker’s keynote.
“Kids don’t know how to be alone,” Walko claimed. “Not that we were perfect at this, but we had the opportunity to learn,” referring to those who came of age in the pre-internet-all-the-time age.
“We didn’t ask for this—we were born into it,” was a comment quoted from a teen featured in an NPR program. Others in the roundtable spoke of those who think “everyone is doing it” so they need to, as well — though research has shown otherwise. The role of dopamine hits in the plugged-in life got a lot of talk time.
We are all complicit
Several spoke of students’ social isolation as well as isolation from their own bodies and senses. One telling illustration: school buses filled with silent students, all bent over their phones — a boon for bus drivers, perhaps, but indicative of a whole different picture of how kids relate to each other in the post-pandemic period. And of course, adults are part of the problem.
Another PPS provider spoke of watching her 18-month-old reaching for a cellphone with alarming regularity. “I realized, of course, that she sees me doing that dozens of times a day; is that what I want to be modeling for her?”
From ‘what’s wrong with you’ to ‘what’s strong with you’
On the positive side, several attendees noted that teens have more coping skills than they did before in terms of online learning and in questioning the wisdom of constant Wi-Fi connectivity.
The acknowledgment by the state Education Department that “schools are the hub” for community mental health is an important step. Gov. Kathy Hochul’s budget for mental health will hopefully result in more family/community/school collaborations.
A therapy dog, the gentle giant Lulu, could be seen trotting the hallways between workshops. In one well-attended hands-on session on stress reduction, therapist Aviva Guttmann led participants in “tapping,” a hallmark of the Emotional Freedom Technique, or EFT, which involves gentle tapping of one’s own meridian points while stating an affirmation of self-acceptance in the face of a particular problem, issue or pain. The technique is simple enough to be shared with anyone, and brings a reduction in anxiety as well as some important self-communication.
Adults must model solutions to the plugged-in life by enforcing their own phone breaks; by insisting that phones not be in bedrooms at night; and by using apps that reduce the dopamine hits of eye-candy visual arrays.
Yonker exhorted all present to be active in promoting fair pay and conditions for mental health workers, a shortage of whom is a major issue. She urged all to send emails to authorities regarding the current Cost-of-Living Adjustment (COLA) proposal, noting that staff with a bachelor’s degree earn $16 per hour.
The next meeting of the Collaborative is on Monday, April 10, at 10:30 a.m. at the Red Hook Community Center.