Courageous Conversations and Healing Practices: Reflecting on The State of Mental Health in New England Schools

By Dana Asby, CEI Director of Innovation & Research Support

School leaders from the six New England states, through the Childhood-Trauma Learning Collaborative (C-TLC), learn from experts and each other about best practices for confronting the trauma, toxic stress, and mental health concerns that make academic achievement challenging for students and staff. On Monday, October 28, the C-TLC convened in Worcester, MA, for its second in-person meeting where Fellows shared the work that they’ve been doing in their schools to further student well-being. They also had courageous conversations about how to spread their expertise to the greater education community through meaningful collaborations.

Stressing the Importance of Building Compassionate Communities

Keynote speakers Dr. Martha Staeheli and Maria E. Restrepo-Toro, BNS, MS led off with a discussion of equity, racism, and courageous conversations. Restrepo-Toro, the manager of the New England Mental Health Technology Transfer Center, shared the template developed by Singleton & Linton (2006) for holding courageous conversations. Her address emphasized the relevance of starting with an understanding of our own attitudes and discomforts. With this kind of approach, it is essential to speak your truth in a conversation where one’s vulnerability is unmasked and courage is needed to stay engaged. Stay posted to follow the efforts of our professional learning community as we delve deeper into this topic over the next few months, including an upcoming webinar where we examine specific approaches to courageous conversations.

Six Fellows who have been actively participating in the C-TLC presented their school’s stories of compassionate community building through two panels at our recent meeting. Former principal and current social-emotional education advocate in Massachusetts, Jill Flanders, led a panel on “Heart Centered Approaches to Mental Health in Schools.”

  • Ali Sumski described universal mental health screening at Methuen Schools in Massachusetts.
  • Amy Mello discussed the Behavioral Intervention and Monitoring Assessment System in Providence, Rhode Island School District, including their approach to universal screening.
  • Jim O’Rourke shared the history, purpose, and progress with the Red Blanket Project at Hillsboro-Deering High School in New Hampshire.

Former principal and current Plymouth University professor Dr. Kathleen Sciarappa led a panel on “Cultivating a Compassionate School Culture.”

  • Joelle Brookner described how she made the decision to become trauma-responsive and how she has recently provided staff at her school with training in background knowledge about trauma, mindfulness, and compassion at Williamstown Elementary in Massachusetts.
  • After Erica McLaughlin committed to making her school more trauma-responsive and gave her staff extensive training, they are now implementing school-wide initiatives to bring their knowledge into the classroom in a concerted effort. She reviewed the purpose and results of the Rise Program at Randolph Elementary School in Vermont.
  • After working for seven years to become trauma-responsive, Joan Cavallo shared a book, “Raider Learns to Own It, Fix It, and Move On” developed at St. Albans City School in Vermont.

The Fellows’ presentations and the conversations they had with each other and the audience reinforced the need for time to grow programs. This work cannot be done hastily, and moreover, the answers cannot be found in a textbook. In both panels, we heard from schools at different parts of the journey of becoming a more trauma-responsive, compassionate school community.

Collaboration is Key

The Fellows’ message of unity and collaboration within their schools was echoed from state and regional perspectives by our afternoon panelists, visitors to the C-TLC from various New England organizations and agencies, in our discussion “Best Practices in Student Mental Health.” Each panelist shared about the work they are doing to ensure that school mental health supports reflect the needs of families and students. In the discussion, moderated by Dr. Michele Rivers Murphy, we heard from:

  • Jeffrey Hill, the Youth Suicide Prevention Project Manager for the Rhode Island Department of Mental Health
  • Lisa Lambert, the Executive Director of the Parent Professional Advocacy League
  • Olga Lopez, Latino Outreach Information Specialist for the Federation for Children with Special Needs
  • Patricia Nemia, Project Director of Massachusetts Family Voices for the Federation for Children with Special Needs
  • Tim Marshall, Director of Community-Based Mental Health at the Connecticut Department of Children and Families

Jeffrey Hill shared information on Rhode Island’s efforts to work with teachers’ unions to see what schools need rather than what the state or districts think they need. This resulted in the mental health mobile crisis teams that have led the state to have the lowest teen suicide rate in the country, down from 18th. Lisa Lambert emphasized the importance of surveying families, because they are the ones spending the most time with youth, so they have valuable information. She reminded us that the diversity of the American family, including LGBTQ, immigrant, and mixed generation families, means there’s no gold standard that works for every family. Her suggestion to focus on relationship-building to achieve success around mental health issues was reinforced by Olga Lopez and Patricia Nemia, who reminded us that schools sometimes have a laser focus on the diagnosis to the point that youth feel like no one is paying attention to them. Students, especially students with disabilities, have reported that the screening process itself can be traumatizing.

Tim Marshall, our keynote speaker, outlined the initiatives and systems Connecticut put in place to become one of the nation’s leading states in responding effectively to childhood trauma. After the Newtown tragedy woke up state legislators, families, and school staff, the state came together to focus on school-based mental health in a variety of ways, including:

Fellows and audience members were inspired by the work being done in various New England states. What was most consistent among the panelists’ approaches was the necessity of taking a step back to listen to all of the stakeholders—students, families, school staff, community organizations, and government agencies—that have an interest in school-based mental health. When this is done, everyone is more likely to work together towards a common goal rather than working separately, and sometimes at odds, despite wanting the same outcome. To learn more about school-based mental health initiatives in New England, check back on our blog site soon.

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