Rockville Centre school district ahead of mental health education curve


Ahead of New York state legislation mandating mental health education in schools, Rockville Centre district officials outlined existing programs and staff designed to combat the conditions and bolster awareness among youth.

“[Mental illness] is scary,” said Dr. Noreen Leahy, assistant superintendent of pupil personnel services and special education. “But I am confident. We are watching.”

Starting on July 1, schools across the state must include mental health education in their curriculum, following legislation approved in 2016. Leahy said this is “a big deal,” because the school district will receive additional resources and training. But Rockville Centre schools are ahead of the curve, she added, noting that the district in 2012 implemented lessons on character and civility for students as per the Dignity for All Students Act.

It all falls under what is referred to as social and emotional learning (SEL), and each school level has various programs in place to confront mental illness. There are seven social workers, nine guidance counselors and 10 psychologists at the schools.

At the elementary schools, each building has one full-time psychologist and one social worker that are on hand every other day. The young students are involved in the Sanford Harmony program, weekly lessons on subjects such as empathy, critical thinking, diversity and inclusion, problem solving, relationships and communication.

“We see things brew from early on,” said Dr. James Landaas, psychologist at Floyd B. Watson Elementary School, on the children experiencing mental health issues. He mentioned that 30 percent of adolescents have anxiety, and 9 percent have depression. Commons factors at the elementary school level include performance pressures, social media issues and cyber bullying — emphasizing fourth- and fifth-graders using the internet and video games to do so. “Before the internet, if there was an issue happening, it would happen at school and it was over,” Landaas said. “But now kids are connected 24/7.”

The teachers at the elementary schools are normally the first ones to deal with mental health issues usually, and they are instructed to reach out to parents if talking it out does not help. Landaas noted he believes Rockville Centre is prepared, but that it is a complicated epidemic. “There’s not one thing we can put our finger on, and that’s what makes it hard,” he said.

At the middle school, there are two full-time psychologists, one full- and half-time social worker amd three guidance counselors. South Side Middle School uses the Second Step program, which are monthly-extended advisories on mental health education.

The first signs and symptoms of mental health problems usually start around age 14, according to an October 2017 report by the Mental Health Association in New York State. Those between the ages of 16 and 24 living with a mental illness are four times less likely to get hired or attend college or trade school after high school, the report said, and 60 percent of high school students suffering from a mental illness do not even graduate. Also, it states, one in 12 high school students across the country attempted suicide in the second half of 2017.

At South Side High School, there are two full-time psychologists, two full-time social workers and six guidance counselors. There is also a full-time social worker at its Greenhouse building. Professionals visit freshman classes once a month to discuss SEL and it is incorporated in 10th- and 12th-grade health classes. Juniors are given projects relating to mental health awareness and there are talks from qualified speakers throughout the year on the subject.

Anxiety is a common issue among high-schoolers, brought on by the stresses of getting into the college they desire and social problems, according to Laurie Levy, supervisor of guidance and student support services at South Side High School. “Students are feeling more awareness of expectations and their lives ahead of them,” she said. The new SEL curriculum, which was introduced last month, includes coping skills and time management, as well as mindfulness. There are monthly lessons by the mental health staff — the topic of drug abuse is next, followed by health relationships. “We will drop everything if a kid comes into the guidance office and they are upset,” added Levy.

Tara Hackett, secretary of the Board of Education and a former Parent Teacher Association president, said that the district takes “how students treat each other” seriously, and are “very in tune to the kids.” She noted that, as children get older, they tell their parents less. “As parents, we are always hypersensitive to our children and their needs but we need to be able to know your children are comfortable identifying when they need help,” Hackett said.

Rockville Centre schools are set to participate in the New York State Education Department’s new School Climate Survey this month — Mental Health Awareness Month — which is designed to measure the mental health state of students.