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Amid 'explosion' of youth mental health needs, here are how MetroWest groups are helping

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Abby Patkin
MetroWest Daily News
December 16, 2021

In its arsenal of tools for identifying and addressing students’ mental health needs, Westborough High School’s universal ninth-grade screening is perhaps the most telling. 

This year, the screening flagged about a third of students for potential mental health concerns, according to Roger Anderson, Westborough Public Schools’ director of wellness, physical education and health. Last winter, an internal survey saw more students self-reporting depression and anxiety, he said.

Though concerning, the results were par for the course in a pandemic that has taken an unprecedented toll on youth mental health

“Humans are great at handling a surge,” Anderson said. “As an example, you think of it as a wave: We can handle a crashing wave of stress and anxiety really well. We're built well for that, but for something to be going on for multiple years now puts a lot of strain on our bodies' ability to recover, and it manifests in different ways for everybody.”

With a recent infusion of grant funding from the MetroWest Health Foundation, Westborough Public Schools — along with several other school districts and local organizations — is working to enhance regional support for youth mental health. 

'Collective trauma'

“We're experiencing an explosion of kids who are really struggling,” said Judy Styer, Framingham Public Schools’ director of health and wellness. The district received a $100,000 grant to support additional mental health counselors in its schools. 

Framingham is seeing a lot of anxiety and depression in middle school and high school students, as well as behavioral issues among younger children, according to Styer.

“I've been in this work for 22 years, and I haven't seen anything like what we're going through right now,” she said. 

Likewise, Framingham Superintendent Robert Tremblay said that he “hasn’t seen this kind of thing before.” With so much time physically away from schools, he said students are relearning how to behave.  

School officials have especially seen students navigating “big transition points” struggle, said Tremblay, such as those who are entering middle or high school.  

“We are finding kids are less mature,” said Tremblay.

On Tuesday, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy called for urgent action on the nation’s youth mental health crisis, noting the pandemic’s impact on an already pressing need

“If you talk to a lot of mental health agencies and schools right now, the overall trend is really this kind of collective trauma that children are carrying with them as they return to school,” said Maggie Yuan, program director at Doc Wayne Youth Services Inc

With offices in Boston and Framingham, the nonprofit provides sports-based group therapy and works with more than 250 youth each week, according to Yuan. Doc Wayne received a $50,000 grant from the MetroWest Health Foundation to expand group therapy programs in Framingham schools.

Framingham-based human services agency Advocates, which received $49,889 to provide mental health supports in Marlborough Public Schools, emphasized access not only for children, but for their teachers and families. 

“Some parents (are) just feeling stretched to the max,” said Advocates Clinic Director Lauren Mazzola. “Kiddos, you know, their routine is all off; they haven't had as much social interaction. So definitely the family system (is) needing a little bit more help than we've seen in the past.” 

There’s growing demand for providers ready to meet those families’ needs. 

“We're hearing from a lot of families about not being able to get access quickly,” Yuan said. “They're on waitlists that are months long.”

Pandemic-era needs have overburdened mental health professionals, and a statewide shortage of behavioral health staff and beds has led to “boarding” among critical cases, where patients wait in the ER until an inpatient bed becomes available.

“It's just like everything's working against getting our kids the support that they need, when they need it,” Styer said.