Learning from Boston commission’s ‘first of its kind’ approach to adolescent mental health

More adolescents than ever are struggling with their mental health. While not a shock, this reality comes with concerns: How do we help adolescents? How do we fix mental health issues? Where do we target adolescents who need the help? The Boston Herald’s Kathleen McKiernan investigates the answers that we as a community so desperately need in Special Report: Schools face surge in suicide attempts.

Bay State in Boston, MA is on the forefront of creating systemic mental health solutions for adolescents and schools with their Safe and Supportive Schools Commission. The commission is composed of a 19-member panel of education and mental health leaders – who are drafting “proposed steps for schools to take to improve access to behavioral health services and increase teacher training,” wrote McKiernan.

The commission was set up in response to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, as well as the rise in adolescents struggling with suicidal thoughts. According to the 2015 Youth Risk Behavior Study, 14.9% of Massachusetts students said they had suicidal thoughts; another 11.9% of had made a plan to take their lives.

According to the most recent public health data in Massachusetts, the problem is “more dire” for female students:

  1. 8.2% of female students attempted suicide over the past year (compared to 5.4% of male students)
  2. 14% of female students made plans for suicide over the past year (compared to 9.8% of males)

These Massachusetts statistics reflect a national issue. Dr. Melissa Pearrow, director of school psychology at the University of Massachusetts Boston, estimates that risk factors for young people today are “10 times worse” than before.

Bucking the status quo

Yet many schools remain unprepared to help students with their depression and anxiety; compounding the problem is a lack of school psychologists. The recommended ratio of psychologist to students is 1:500-700 — which most schools fall short of because of school budgets, said school psychologist Angela Cristiani.

This sort of data has emboldened Boston to make students’ mental health a priority. Superintendent Tommy Chang created the Office of Social Emotional Learning and Wellness (SELWELL), he said, because “many young people can’t succeed in the classroom if they are battling trauma, depression and anxiety.”

While Massachusetts is on the cutting edge of new suicide prevention techniques in the schools, Forefront’s Forefront in Schools (FIS) program is similarly dedicated to helping young students struggling with mental health issues.

The first year of this program was focused on helping schools make specific crisis plans, and setting up suicide prevention trainings for teachers, parents, and students.

The second year was geared towards more enhanced training which resulted in more proactive behavioral health and suicide prevention in FIS partner schools.

The biggest lesson that the community can learn from Massachusetts’ newest suicide prevention strategies: When it comes to suicide prevention, there is always something more that we as individuals and a community can be doing to help. And we need to be doing it together.