Mental and emotional wellness programs at Island public schools are getting a boost this semester from more than a third of a million dollars in state funding.
The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education is providing the Martha’s Vineyard Public School District with $340,642 for staff and programs aimed at improving student mental health while fostering their social and emotional learning.
“There has been an uptick in the needs of students,” said Kim Garrison of the all-Island school based wellness office, which is funded in part by a Vineyard Vision Fellowship awarded to Ms. Garrison two years ago.
“There’s a lot of challenges for many of our families,” she told the Gazette. “Substance use. Housing is a huge crisis. The pandemic.”
Counselors at the regional high school have been sounding the alarm for years over student stress and anxiety, and Ms. Garrison said town schools are also seeing more kids in distress.
It’s a nationwide problem, she said, citing last December’s advisory on teen mental health by the Surgeon General of the United States.
“We’re officially in a youth mental health crisis,” she said.
On Martha’s Vineyard, simply living year-round through the boom-and-bust seasonal cycle can pose difficulties for young people, Ms. Garrison said.
“There’s this manic rise and fall of our pace of life and our way of life, [and] anything that affects the community and adults, affects youths,” she said.
Under the terms of the new state grant, all of the $340,642 must be used by June 30. Ms. Garrison has plans for every dollar.
“The money is already spent,” she said. “It’s all queued up.”
The bulk of the state grant will go toward three key areas of emphasis Island-wide, Ms. Garrison said.
One goal is to broaden the school district’s mental health screenings to include more students, as well as more services for those found to be at risk.
Another is to extend the district’s partnerships with local organizations such as Martha’s Vineyard Community Services, to make services available more widely.
Finally, the district will continue creating multiple, layered opportunities for students to get help, and to help themselves.
“This is where my [Vineyard] Vision work really focuses: developing multi-tiered systems of social-emotional, behavioral and mental health and well-being support,” Ms. Garrison said.
One example is a teen mental health first aid course, which the high school introduced last fall as a part of its mandatory health class for sophomores.
The course teaches teens to spot and respond to signs of trouble among their peers — and themselves — while working to ease the long-held stigma against seeking help with mental and emotional problems.
“Mental health literacy is all about . . . breaking down the stigma [and] improving people’s knowledge and understanding of how common mental health challenges are,” Ms. Garrison said.
Two MVRHS sophomores who recently completed the course were scheduled give a presentation on teen mental health first aid to a group of Cape Cod and Islands legislators Feb. 4, Ms. Garrison said.
The new grant will help expand the training to more grades and make similar resources available to teachers and parents, she said, while supporting programs for younger grades as well.
“The complexity of all the work . . . is a lot to wrap your mind around,” Ms. Garrison said.
While significant, the new grant is one of many Ms. Garrison has applied for and won for wellness programs in Island schools, from local as well as state sources.
A recent Martha’s Vineyard Community Foundation grant underwrote subscriptions to a mind-calming app for teachers, she said, and the Vineyard Vision Fellowship helps fund programs with teens.
Along with educational programming, Ms. Garrison added, some marketing is involved, to provide frequent reminders that help is available.
Scannable QR codes posted around the high school and printed stickers for students’ phones offer quick ways to connect with the school’s I-CARE page, which provides lists and links to resources for students and staff alike.
The state grant also will fund two new staff positions this term: a mental health clinician for kindergarten through grade eight and a paraprofessional providing therapeutic support, Ms. Garrison said.
The additions are in keeping with recommendations from the 2018 Medstar report — a health and wellness study of the school district by a team of doctors with the National Center for Mental Health and Medstar Georgetown University Hospital — and the 2021 Rural Scholars report on Island youth aged 16-26.
Both study teams recommended that the district add behavioral health clinicians, and Ms. Garrison said she will continue seeking grants to keep them on staff — for as long as they’re needed.
“Sometimes positions dissolve, because they’re so effective [or because] other programs are effective,” she said.
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‘This too shall pass away’ this famous Persian adage seems to be defeating us again and again in the case of COVID-19. Despite every effort