One of my most difficult moments as a Montgomery County Public Schools parent was driving my high school daughter to a mental health therapy session in a blizzard. It was a crisis moment. I felt so alone and eager to turn to her school’s staff to help me navigate the crisis.

In truth, my situation was hardly unique. Alarming trends show rising numbers of adolescent mental health cases across the nation.

Here in Montgomery County, in the last few weeks, we saw an unprecedented participation of secondary-level students at town hall meetings sharing their well-being needs with local policymakers. Teens spoke about the current status of their mental health and how the pandemic has impacted their lives.

In response, both advocates and elected officials have proposed peer counseling groups and telehealth options for students.

These are only short-term reactive responses. What we need are long-term proactive solutions instead. Here are a few recommendations to ensure that youth mental health issues are addressed on a consistent basis.

First, the Montgomery County Board of Education can adopt mental health as a permanent agenda item rather than only address the issues when we are in crisis.

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When making policies and guidelines, the board can look through the lens of its potential impact on student mental well-being.

The board can assign mental health issues to the Committee on Special Populations, which is charged with ensuring that resources are sufficiently and efficiently allocated to meet the needs of all MCPS students. This way, mental issues remain at the forefront of the agenda, as it may overlap with other areas of need for underserved populations.

Secondly, student input is crucial to improving MCPS’ current mental health care system.

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As a former Magruder High School college and career counselor, I have implemented MCPS high schools’ instituted advisory time for mental well-being. Though, we lack data to determine if advisory time is effective.

Students’ suggestions on how to best use this time will help inform the board’s strategic planning efforts. The end goal is to achieve student-centered mental health solutions.

Finally, acknowledge that student well-being is associated with inclusive and welcoming school environments.

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In MCPS, students have backgrounds from 157 countries and they come from families that speak 150 languages.

Beside my work inside the school system, I come into contact with students and families through my volunteer work with local nonprofits such as the Montgomery Care clinics and Special Olympics, and local civic organizations such as Parent Teacher Associations, 4-H Youth Club, Girl Scouts, and Leo Club.

Both parents and students want a learning environment that is more culturally inclusive. 

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I have also come across students who have shared stories of being teased, feelings of not fitting in with any culture and choosing to break away from their heritage to fit in among peers. We must address this beyond counseling and involve the community.

MCPS can partner with Montgomery County’s Charles W. Gilchrist Center for Cultural Diversity, which provides MCPS families an opportunity to learn about different cultures and nationalities, and, more importantly, allows teachers and students to connect with one another.

A few years later after that blizzard, I am proud and grateful that my daughter is thriving.

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I want the same outcome for every child in this county. We can achieve this by making mental health a priority agenda item for the Board of Education, taking into account student voices as part of our policymaking process and expanding practices that promote a positive and inclusive school culture.

We achieve this with the same motivation, willingness and drive I had on that blizzard day.

Julie Yang lives in Potomac and is running for the District 3 seat on the Montgomery County Board of Education.

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