Montgomery County parents and caregivers are invited to attend Your Story Matters, a forum on mental health in communities of color that will include discussions of student anxiety and depression, suicide prevention, grief during the holidays, mental health stigma and more.
The forum is being hosted by MCPS from 6 to 8:30 p.m. Tuesday at Rockville’s Richard Montgomery High School. It will include panel discussions and four topical workshops. Registration remains open.
Newly elected school board member Julie Yang (District 1) said she looks forward to attending the event.
The forum comes amid both local and national spikes in concern for student mental health. National data shows 70% percent of U.S. public schools reported a rise in the number of staff noticing symptoms of depression, anxiety and trauma in their students since the start of the pandemic, according to the National Center for Education Statistics in April.
Out of a total of 146 full-time school psychologist positions for FYE 2023, MCPS currently has 31.8 vacancies, according to the Department of Communications Director Jessica Baxter. MCPS has four full-time and four part-time vacancies for school counselor positions out of a total of 593.9 full-time positions, she said.
Dawn Iannaco-Hahn, licensed clinical professional counselor and Montgomery County mother-of-two, has been working in early childhood mental health for over 22 years. She said the county is currently experiencing a “crisis of epic proportions” when it comes to providing mental health services.
School counselors are not trained to provide clinical services like individual, family and group therapy, Iannaco-Hahn explained. This means the burden is often left to parents to ensure their children receive adequate care outside of regular school hours, she said.
“It’s difficult for a lot of parents to get their children to a clinic, especially during the school day — which is why school mental health is such an amazing program,” she said. “We need to reach the kids where they are.”
Sometimes meeting kids where they are requires home visitation, she added, especially for low-income communities where transportation is a common barrier to receiving services. Adding clinical mental health experts to MCPS staff should include therapists who can go into the community and meet with children in the comfort of their own homes, she said.
These staffing shortages are not unique to Montgomery County.
There is an “unprecedented demand for mental health experts” in schools across the country in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Thomas Toch, Director of the Future-Ed policy center at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy. Low-income and rural areas are feeling the shortages most acutely, he said.
“The isolation and anxiety that flowed from [the pandemic] really hurt a lot of students, undermining their morale and their commitment to learning,” he said.
Studies show one-third of school districts nationwide are seeking to increase staffing for mental health professionals, Toch said. Prior to the pandemic, many districts traditionally hired social workers on a part-time consulting basis to provide in-school mental health services, he said, but now there’s an increased demand for full-time licensed clinicians to be assigned to schools.
“It really is incumbent upon school district leaders to identify their highest priorities and allocate monies accordingly,” Toch said. “And it’s clear that post-pandemic, students’ mental and emotional well-being is a very high priority. If we don’t address those challenges, there will be a lot less learning in schools than we would hope.”