Aspen school board questions part 4: How to address mental health
Editor’s note: This is the final installment in a series of four questions posed to candidates for two openings on the Aspen School District Board of Education. Election Day is Nov. 5; ballots were mailed out last week.
Today’s question: An eighth-grade teacher recently told the Board of Education that the current number of mental health cases at Aspen Middle School is the highest she has ever seen, which leads to the question: Is the Aspen School District adequately addressing mental health issues among its students? Why or why not?
Schools, whether in Aspen or elsewhere, have only one job — educate children — all children! Ultimately, the school works for the community, and they have a solemn duty to serve that community — the whole community. This applies equally to students who are suffering from mental health challenges as much as any other students. Children’s mental health is a national problem, and Aspen is not immune from it. Nationwide, it is estimated that possibly 20% of students suffer from some form of mental health issue. The good thing is that studies show that early intervention can effectively help children in such situations by arming them with skills and tools to handle their mental health challenges throughout school and into adulthood.
The first thing the schools need to do is get more data. We need to adequately understand the scope and severity of the problem. The schools cannot decide how best to handle mental health challenges unless they know how many kids they are dealing with, and the severity of the problem. Are we talking about children suffering with anxiety and depression or other issues such as eating disorders or suicide? The solutions the school offers will be dictated by this information. Whatever the data says, however, the schools cannot ignore it. Mental health issues, if left untreated, have the potential to become much more severe — possibly even leading to self-harm or even suicide. The schools cannot allow that to happen, and therefore they must be involved with the solutions.
The district’s stated mission is that “Students will realize their full potential.” For this to happen, the school must work to educate the whole child, mental health and all. I am the only candidate who has consistently pushed for educating the whole child. If we just focus on raising test scores, then we will not be helping students with their mental health issues, and may even make the problem worse. Only by educating the whole child will our students be armed with the tools they need to succeed and thrive in the world. Luckily the Aspen schools are beginning to see the problems and starting programs to fight it, and the board must continue supporting that work by:
• Continue and strengthen partnerships with outside organizations such as Aspen Family Connections, MindSprings and Aspen Strong.
• Give teachers the support and training to recognize mental health issues.
• Give parents assistance with resources on mental health issues.
It is my belief that mental health should be a high priority, and I am convinced we can do more.
First, I would like to better understand how and where mental health ranks within our budget. Although our district has various resources in place, I feel the current demand outweighs our current resources. Anyone can hope and wish for improvements, but it’s time for a reallocation of resources to better address this concern.
High school Principal Tharyn Mulberry has implemented a program called Curriculum C to address social, emotional and ethical concerns. Is there a way to include and/or adapt this program for our elementary and middle schools?
Aspen Family Connections is another great mental health resource. They offer educational and supportive workshops for parents with kids of all age levels. Recently they have been inundated with students needing and wanting help, but have been overwhelmed with the demand. Thankfully AEF has joined the effort and has begun to support Aspen Family Connections. I too would like to see how our school could augment this effort.
We have counselors on staff. I would like to better understand if the current number of counselors is sufficient and are there areas for improvement?
There is also a communication gap within the system that can be improved. Students have challenges. Specific resources are available. However, there are times where struggling students simply are not aware of what exactly to do when facing certain challenges. We need to better understand the gaps and address them systematically, so we can get parents and students to the right department to set up personal support.
Going forward mental health needs to be prioritized. A strategic and comprehensive plan needs to be devised, with the input from our teachers, board and superintendent together.
Like housing, mental health is a valley-wide issue. We have higher rates of both depression and suicide here than the national average, and our kids are not immune. There are numerous threads that contribute to this situation, substance abuse and social media being the most prevalent.
Parenting can also play a role. According to some local therapists, there is also the added “mountain town” effect. As one high-schooler put it, “We live in everyone else’s weekend.” Put another way, “If I can’t be happy in Aspen, what is wrong with me?” Lastly, as kids get older, there is a lack of trust in adults and a strongly held value of not snitching. If you know someone is in trouble, but you don’t want them to get an MIP or you don’t believe the parents are up to the task, what do you do? All of this seems counterintuitive because we live in such a beautiful place, surrounded by nature. Yet I hear heartbreaking stories from my kids everyday about the struggle going on just under our shiny surface. I do think the district understands the depth of the problem and is taking steps to address it. Aspen Family Connections is an amazing resource that has already made a difference. The AEF just voted to fund another counselor at the middle school. Both the middle and high school administrations are working hard to identify the root causes of bad behavior and address the underlying issues rather than just slapping on consequences.
I am participating in a strategic meeting on mental health next week. The organizers are bringing together many of our resources to pool our abilities and tackle this issue together. The middle school is asking parents to volunteer during recess and lunch to observe and help correct some of the out of control behavior. That said, there is a lack of trust between parents and administrators because of a failure to solve these issues in the past, and the fear that bad behavior — which is directly linked to mental health — is destroying the ability for kids to learn in the classroom. With all of this I believe the district is on it, but we need to keep pushing forward. I am running on three issues: teacher pay, academic performance and helping our kids. This issue is one that is justifiably at the top of the list.
I have not had visibility into the specifics of this issue in our schools, but I am not surprised. With a seventh-grader in AMS and a ninth-grader in AHS, I am invested in making sure we make this a priority. Mental health issues are on the rise not just in our school district, but also across the country. Our community has recently experienced a spree of tragic mental health outcomes across the age spectrum, touching many of us, including me personally. We ask — could we have done more? I am not a mental health professional and do not know the answer in our district, but it’s an important question that deserves an answer. And I suspect we can do better.
What is the total resource allocation to counselors, psychologists, social workers and support staff that support our kids, and what is the right amount? The American School Counselor Association recommends one counselor per 250 students. With professionals working across multiple buildings and outside resources available in the schools, I’m not sure if we have appropriate staffing. What do the professionals need and want in terms of additional resources? Just this week this issue was addressed in a New York Times article about a strike in the Chicago Public schools; a major issue on the table involves not enough resources going to support staff, especially mental health support. Teaching staff are striking not just about their own compensation and working conditions, but about adequate resources for the kids, resources that help them do their jobs more effectively. With the resources in our district I am sure we can prioritize this issue without having to resort to a strike. As important as it is to make sure teachers and faculty have support to share concerns on academics and work environment, nothing is more important than making sure all of those in contact with our kids — not just teachers, but also support staff — have adequate training and resources to share concerns about the mental well-being of our kids.
Aspen Family Connections and MindSprings are doing fantastic work in our schools along with our staff. If elected to the board, I would listen to these professionals and prioritize funding to programs. I’ve said many times throughout this campaign that growing happy, healthy and well-educated children into successful adults is our top priority, and mental health is a huge part.
A month ago I asked my daughter (class of 2015) what are ASD’s biggest issues. This is what she texted to me: “Mental health!! you can’t give students more and more pressure to perform, like making the whole school super outcome-oriented! learning and healing also happens outside academics, leave space for that! I know lots of students who were suicidal even in middle school. this ‘everything is fine, we live in aspen, just do well academically and win the trophies’ attitude is hurting people by masking real, life-threatening problems.”
So, clearly, ASD is not doing an adequate job. We are making progress (thank you, AEF), we do have resources, we partner with area organizations to provide services; but at the end of the day some of our kids are suffering. Other candidates say we are failing our students academically. They throw around stats and test scores as evidence. I couldn’t care less about no longer being the best district in the state academically if we are graduating kids who can’t cope. Our students are academically prepared; they are not prepared emotionally and mentally. We shouldn’t improve test scores at the expense of the child’s whole being.
This is not just ASD’s problem to solve. This is a community issue. Our valley was founded between the towns of Independence and Defiance. We don’t do community well. We are isolated, stubborn and lonely. We numb and mask our problems. The city and the county make great resources available, but that doesn’t fully address this issue either. The truth is that we’ve become more fractured as a community. Society’s tribalism is unhealthy. We need to ask for help. Parents, our job is to look for ways to create a healthy community for you and your child. Don’t just look to the schools. Be a builder of community, not someone who tears it down. Maybe focus on your neighborhood, maybe focus on service to others, maybe it’s faith based. Our kids need to know that they are loved, accepted, and have a place in this world.
This question touches on the major themes of my campaign. We are better together through community, communication, and creative problem solving. The BOE can’t solve this issue. We need to set aside our tribes, come together, and launch our kids to be whole human beings. If elected, I promise to work on building a better community for our schools.
As a parent who has a child who suffers from a severe major depression disorder, and graduated from Aspen High School, I am answering this question from a personal perspective. First, the support and help we received from the teachers and staff was invaluable. Most of the teachers and staff went above and beyond their job description to help our child. Thank you! However, we also found ourselves having to advocate for our child on several occasions because some teachers were not able to fully understand his condition.
Progress has been made with great initiatives like Aspen Family Connections and through the daily work of our school psychologists, teachers and staff, but there is still work to be done. We need to make sure there are clear guidelines and procedures in place to help kids who are struggling with mental health conditions. Educating our teachers, staff and coaches on how to identify and help kids who might be at risk, or are already struggling, is essential. Everyone also needs to understand that as with physical health, we can promote an environment that fosters healthy social emotional development in our schools, but there are still biological and external factors that can impact our kids’ mental health.
We need to assure that there is a strong support and referral system in place. The same support and accommodations need to be provided to children struggling from mental health, as we would with any other health condition. Mental health disorders can be extremely incapacitating, preventing kids from learning and attending school. Prioritizing resources to help struggling kids and work with affected families to help find the support or medical help needed is critical.
We also owe it to our kids to educate ourselves about mental health disorders, so that we can work together on prevention, support and treatment of those cases that develop. It needs to be a community effort. As with any medical condition, we need to increase awareness and education, and compassionately support people who are struggling. Hopefully, by doing this, we will help end the stigma surrounding mental illness and reduce the number of people suffering from these conditions.