2022 | Schools

MCPS and county put spotlight on mental health services during community forum

More than 100 parents and students attend session at Seneca Valley High School

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Christina Conolly-Chester (standing), director of psychological services for Montgomery County Public Schools, talks about stress and anxiety and the effects those can have on students during an event at Seneca Valley High School on Tuesday.

Photos By Steve Bohnel

On Tuesday evening, students Bethany Fuss and Derek Pedraza stood stationed in hallways near the cafeteria at Seneca Valley High School, helping to direct more than 100 parents and students to various rooms where participants would be discussing a hot topic in schools: mental health.

Fuss and Pedraza — members of the Eagle Ambassadors’ service program that allows Seneca Valley students to volunteer in various capacities at their Germantown school — both said Tuesday’s event was key to highlighting mental health resources offered by Montgomery County Public Schools, the county’s Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) and community organizations. 

But more can be done to help alleviate mental health issues among students attending Montgomery County public schools, they said. 

“I think what MCPS is doing, and discussions like this, are really important,” Fuss said about the forum and breakout sessions held at the high school. But she added that school leaders need to do more, and “not just be like, ‘Oh, we did this one thing, look at what we did’ … . To keep up that momentum, I think, is really important.”

Tuesday’s event “Your Story Matters,” featured several senior MCPS officials, counselors, social workers, and DHHS workers, among others. The professionals helped facilitate discussions between parents, students, principals and others about mental health issues that students are facing, along with hosting various sessions on available services and topics including how to identify signs of suicide, stress and anxiety in students, restorative justice and  the role of social workers and school counselors.

Ruschelle Reuben, MCPS chief of teaching, learning and schools, said a lot of parents and students were learning about available resources for the first time Tuesday. Connecting them to resources is a large part of addressing mental health issues and MCPS needs to do a better job with that, Reuben added.

During the event, multiple school officials and parents said they have noticed noted an increase in anxiety and stress among students due to the coronavirus pandemic, social isolation, and the use of social media. Reuben told Bethesda Beat there’s a “sense of fear” among students and that a number of conflicts now begin on social media.

Christina Conolly-Chester, director of psychological services for MCPS, led discussions in a classroom about topics including what stress and anxiety look like in students, when symptoms start, and what triggers stress.

In an interview, Conolly-Chester said the transition to in-person learning has been difficult for some students, including when it comes to resolving conflicts. Anxiety and other issues resulting from using social media have definitely contributed to the increase in demand for mental health services, but the platforms predate the pandemic, Conolly-Chester noted.

Parents and students participate in “Your Story Matters,” an event focusing on mental health services at Seneca Valley High School on Tuesday.

During her presentation, Conolly-Chester encouraged those who were interested to pursue a career in mental health counseling, saying that a continuing shortage of such professionals amid growing demand means there will be plenty of available jobs.

“There needs to be more graduate-level programs for people to come in,” she said. “And so right now, [mental health workers] are exhausted, they’re saturated. [Colleges are] cranking out as many as they can. But for school psychologists, there are only a few universities in the area. So it would be nice to have a school psych graduate program in every university in Maryland. That would help.”

Pedraza — one of the Eagle ambassadors — believes there also need to be more mental health professionals throughout the entire MCPS system. Seneca Valley has a great counseling department, he said. But those resources don’t exist across the whole district, he said.

It puts a lot of responsibilities on teachers, he said.

“The teachers also have a big impact on us … many students have that one teacher you connect with, that you can talk about your problems [with],” Pedraza said.

Dira Treadvance, chief of Children Youth and Family Services for DHHS, oversees several programs that link schoolchildren and families to DHHS, including early care and education and child welfare services.

Mental health challenges differ with each child, Treadvance said. With limited resources, it’s important that she and others figure out where and how to best address students’ needs, she said. Adding layers of more psychologists, counselors and other personnel might make it more difficult for students and parents to navigate the system, she said, though she noted that resources for middle and elementary schoolers need to increase. 

Also, it’s important to consider that a number of students were suffering from mental health issues before the  COVID-19 pandemic, she added.

“I always say, we have parallel pandemics,” Treadvance said. “All of this existed before COVID, and what the pandemic did was the pandemic came and just laid it bare. It all kind of just bubbled up.”

Along with MCPS and DHHS officials, community partners were also available to provide information and resources on Tuesday. One of them was EveryMind, a mental health services provider that is headquartered in Rockville and mostly serves the mid-county area. The provider also works with schools to provide family therapy and other mental health services.

Leah Schwartz, director of counseling services for EveryMind, said needs do differ from child to child and family to family and it’s important to focus on social and emotional support as well. For those families on waitlists for services, EveryMind works with partner organizations to see if workshops or other types of programming are available, she said.

Fuss, one of the Eagle ambassadors, noted it’s a tough time to be a high school student. 

“Someone really close to me has struggled with a lot of mental health issues, and there has always just been a lack of people who really are experts in the field,” Fuss said. “School counselors can do all that they’re trained to do, but really having school psychologists and experts who are properly trained … especially to deal with crisis situations, I think, is really important.”

Steve Bohnel can be reached at steve.bohnel@bethesdamagazine.com