Mental-Health-Related School Absences on the Rise in Yorktown

Yorktown High School Credits: File Photo

YORKTOWN, N.Y. - Yorktown school officials have identified the key to students’ success after mental-health-related absences: getting them in the building.

Michael Rosen, the district’s director of pupil personnel services, said  that having support for students in the building, rather than relying on at-home instruction or outside treatment, makes a difference in their back-to-school adjustment.

“The piece that we’re adding is utilizing our building to support the students as opposed to outside [resources],” Rosen said. “How can we get them back in the building and back in class?”

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Although it was brought up during a special education presentation, Rosen said the plan applies to the entire student body because general population and special education students alike can sometimes experience crippling anxiety. He said he particularly sees this type of absence in the middle and high school students.

“There’s just so much going on in their lives,” Rosen said.

The demands of being a high school student prove more challenging for some students than others, he added. He and Lisa O’Shea, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, agree that it’s the school’s responsibility to teach students how to cope in situations that may leave them feeling overwhelmed.

“Our job is to educate all students,” O’Shea said. “They need to be able to access that education.”

Under the special education department’s seven guiding principles, the focus on this type of support falls under the effort to develop and implement specific strategies and programs to address students’ social/emotional needs. Districts regionwide are making efforts toward this type of support in their schools.

In addition to providing counseling opportunities to students, the Yorktown and Lakeland School Districts alternate hosting monthly meetings to discuss various topics that pertain to students’ social/emotional needs. Past topics have included gender issues, guardianship issues and anxiety. Rosen said guest speakers work with the clinical teams from both districts and brainstorm topics together.

“It’s something that we’ve seen that’s been growing over the years,” O’Shea said. “It’s not been a skyrocketing event but over time you start to see students struggling for whatever reason and it could be a combination of people seeking help and being more open but demands on teenagers look differently than they did 10 years ago.”

For now, Yorktown officials are happy to report that they have been able to improve their services by reallocating funds rather than increasing the budget.

“Instead of paying for students to have instruction at home or in the hospital, we’re reallocating to the team that’s here in the building,” Rosen said.

Through this method, clinical support and teachers are available to students in a way that eases them back into their routine. A student can start by going to one or two classes and then retreat to an area where they feel less overwhelmed under the guidance of a staff member.

Rosen cites one student who received such support and was attending half of her classes just three days after returning to school after an extended absence.  He said she reported feeling supported.

“When they’re ready to go back to class they are taking control,” Rosen said. “The power is back in their hands.”

This in-house approach to supporting students through periods of anxiety empowers them more than if they are excused from schoolwork and other responsibilities, Rosen said. However, both he and O’Shea stressed that it’s natural for some students to take longer than others to return to school and that every situation is unique.

For Rosen and O’Shea, the proof of the program’s success has been reinforced by the medical professionals working with students after they’ve experienced extended absences or hospitalizations.

“Instead of having an interim therapeutic support program, these therapists are readily supporting a return to Yorktown High School because they know the building is now providing interim steps,” Rosen said. “That’s the success piece that we’re seeing.”

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