One of my hardest times as a Montgomery County Public Schools parent was driving my high school daughter to a mental health therapy session in a blizzard. It was a moment of crisis. I felt so alone and eager to turn to the staff at her school to help me through the crisis.
In truth, my situation was not unique. Alarming trends show a growing number of teenage mental health cases across the country.
Here in Montgomery County, over the past few weeks, we’ve seen an unprecedented turnout of high school students at town halls to share their wellness needs with local decision makers. The teenagers spoke about the current state of their mental health and the impact of the pandemic on their lives.
In response, advocates and elected officials have offered peer counseling groups and telehealth options for students.
These are only short-term reactive responses. Rather, what we need are proactive, long-term solutions. Here are some recommendations to ensure that youth mental health issues are consistently addressed.
First, the Montgomery County School Board can adopt mental health as a standing agenda item rather than only tackling issues when we are in crisis.
When developing policies and guidelines, the board can look through the lens of its potential impact on students’ mental well-being.
The board may refer mental health issues to the Special Populations Committee, which is responsible for ensuring that resources are allocated sufficiently and effectively to meet the needs of all MCPS students. In this way, mental issues remain high on the agenda, as they can overlap with other areas of need for underserved populations.
Second, student input is critical to improving MCPS’s current mental health care system.
As a former Magruder High School college and career counselor, I established an MCPS high school-instituted advisory time for mental wellness. However, we lack data to determine whether counseling time is effective.
Student suggestions on how best to use this time will help inform the board’s strategic planning efforts. The end goal is to achieve student-centered mental health solutions.
Finally, recognize that student well-being is associated with inclusive and welcoming school environments.
At MCPS, students have backgrounds from 157 countries and come from families that speak 150 languages.
In addition to my work within the school system, I connect with students and families through my volunteer work with local nonprofit organizations such as Montgomery Care and Special Olympics clinics, and local civic organizations. such as parent-teacher associations, 4-H Youth Club, Girl Scouts and Leo Club.
Parents and students want a more culturally inclusive learning environment.
I also met students who shared stories of teasing, feelings of not fitting in with any culture, and choosing to break with their heritage to fit in among their peers. We need to address this beyond the board and involve the community.
MCPS can partner with the Charles W. Gilchrist Center for Cultural Diversity in Montgomery County, which offers MCPS families the opportunity to learn about different cultures and nationalities and, most importantly, empowers teachers and students to connect with each other.
A few years later, after that blizzard, I’m proud and grateful that my daughter is thriving.
I want the same result for every child in this county. We can do this by making mental health a high priority on the school board agenda, incorporating student voices into our policy development process, and expanding practices that foster a culture positive and inclusive school.
We achieve this with the same motivation, the same will and the same dynamism that I had that day.
Julie Yang lives in Potomac and is running for District 3 seat on the Montgomery County School Board.
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