Oceanside schools outline mental health resources


May is Mental Health Awareness Month, observed since 1949 in the United States. “It’s a part of life, it’s normal, and it’s something we all deal with,” said Alison Eriken, a former Oceanside High School student and a co-founder of the Makeshift Movement, an organization founded in 2015 that sheds light on and promotes discussion of mental health, suicide and substance abuse in Oceanside.

Eriksen, a social worker, added that metal health is often overlooked because many see it as a weakness and are afraid to deal with it. She said that the more people talk about it, the better.

“We have a top-notch staff of social workers, guidance counselors and psychologists trained to recognize students with difficulties and help them through these periods of time,” said Dr. Jill DeRosa, assistant superintendent for human resources, student services and community activities. Oceanside schools have 12 social workers, 13 psychologists and 13 guidance counselors, and they are distributed across the 10 buildings based on enrollment numbers, she said. There are also programs and curriculum in place for mental health education that differ depending on grade level.

“I am encouraged that they realize it’s an important issue and that this is the first line of defense,” said Herb Pitkowsky, a parent of two at the high school. He reinforced that each school works to reach out to students and parents if necessary, according to what he has heard from talking with other residents. “It’s never enough, because it’s a very big issue, and they do a lot, but always more could be done,” he added.

In the elementary schools, kindergarten through third grade are lectured by social workers in their classrooms, fourth- and-fifth graders take phys. ed., and sixth-graders go through the “Too Good for Drugs” program, which is intended to encourage better decision making, with an emphasis on drugs and alcohol.

The most common issues at the younger ages are refusal to attend school, sleeping troubles, missing their parents, family divorce, grief and difficulty socializing, according to Dr. Joann Vaccaro, a psychologist at School No. 3. If teachers notices unusual student behavior, guidelines dictate that they speak with the parents first before referring a child to the school psychologist or social worker. If students require additional help, they are referred to social services outside the school.

“If our students need to talk to someone,” Vaccaro said, “we’ll find someone.”

At Oceanside Middle School, they hold a “group guidance” program once a week where groups of 12 to 14 students meet with guidance counselors. They discuss mental health awareness, recognizing the signs and symptoms in themselves and their peers, and how to break the stigma regarding issues.

It’s all about “dispelling the taboo,” said Principal Dr. Allison Glickman Rogers. “Depression is not a dirty word,” is something they are taught, she said. For Mental Health Awareness Month, there are frequent morning announcements and signage throughout the school reminding students to help themselves and one another.

At Oceanside High School, students are educated on mental health awareness in their health classes. The biggest issue at the high school level is anxiety, according to Associate Principal Paul Guzzone, which often stems from students taking too many classes, skipping lunch and overworking themselves, he said. Common nervous feelings revolve around students believing they are not meeting expectations set by themselves, their families or based on their peers (for example, not getting an A, failing to get accepted to top-choice colleges, not fitting in with certain social groups, feeling unhappy about their appearance or suffering from issues at home, such as divorce or an ill family member). Guzzone, head of the school’s Guidance Department, said bullying is a factor, but surprisingly not as big a problem as others.

He said the school holds programs to combat potential mental health issues, such as “identification” meetings with their incoming middle school students to discuss their concerns and pre-existing issues before they first walk through the high school’s front doors. Another program is the Government and Economics Mentoring program, for which upperclassmen are nominated by teachers to mentor freshmen in their health classes. There are also groups organized to handle specific problems such as divorce, new entry into the school, grief, first generation Americans, family illness and gender-specific turmoil.

Guzzone said the teachers are instructed to look for changes in student behavior such as hygiene, academic performance and the way they dress — noting there have been scenarios in which students wore an unusual amount of clothing to cover up lacerations from self-harm.

“We can only do so much within our schools,” Guzzone said, adding that the school’s counseling team meets once a week to discuss internal matters. If students require additional help, they are referred to a mental health professional in the area. “As a district, I feel pretty positive [that] we are doing everything we can to support our students and get them the help that they need,” he said.

At Oceanside’s Castleton Academy High School, there is a smaller ratio of staff to students for its 60 students who “haven’t succeeded in the traditional school setting,” according to Principal Brendon Mitchell.

“We try to individualize and cater to what the students’ needs are,” Mitchell said, noting that common issues at Castleton are similar to OHS, and spoke of typical teenage problems such as relationships and social media. “Back in my day, you wouldn’t know if you got invited to a party or not. But today, with Snapchat and Instagram, you know,” Mitchell added. Students’ mental health problems are handled with instruction that is sensitive to the students’ trauma — which is defined as any negative event that is overwhelming to a student, regardless of the severity.

This year, Castleton set aside a room dedicated to mindfulness and meditation. This month, the school will celebrate Mental Health Awareness Month with a series of lunchtime group discussions, which will feature students chatting about mental health as well as their own personal interests and passions. “Mental health is not something we want to hide,” Mitchell said, highlighting Castleton’s efforts to rid the stigma. “It should be something we’re all aware of.”

Although there will be one fewer social worker serving the Oceanside School District next year, according to the proposed 2018-19 school budget, DeRosa assured the current social workers will “absorb the difference” and another would be hired if necessary; the situation is being “closely monitored.”