Published in the August 13, 2015 edition


WAKEFIELD — Members of the Wakefield Community and Public Schools Mental Health Collaborative met with the School Committee this week to talk about some of their initiatives and the structure that they hope to build in the schools and the community at large.

School Superintendent Dr. Kim Smith told the committee that the group had made a presentation at a conference of Massachusetts school superintendents in July that drew raves from school leaders from other districts.

Wakefield High School psychologist Jason Levene introduced “community partners” Kelley Cunningham, assistant director of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health Suicide Prevention Program; Catherine Dhingra, the Wakefield Health Department’s Drug Abuse Prevention coordinator, and Donna Kausek from Elliot Community Human Services.

Cunningham told the committee that in addition to her involvement in mental health services, she is also a parent of children in the Wakefield School System. She talked about resources available when parents are concerned about a child’s mental health.

Cunningham said that her agency at DPH disburses state funds for suicide prevention. She noted that often times when her agency is called in to a school system it is because a suicide has occurred.

“Wakefield is different,” she said. “We’ve been called in as community partners and there hasn’t been a suicide within that school community. Even at the state level, they’re starting to see Wakefield as a model.”

She said that state issued suicide prevention guidelines stress the importance of schools forging relationships with local community partners to which students and families can turn. She noted that that is something Wakefield is already doing.

Dhingra talked about the Youth Risk Behavior Survey that has been driving a lot of the decisions around mental health. As a Wakefield parent, Dhingra said that she is especially interested in making sure students are socially and emotionally healthy so they’re not engaging in high risk activities.

Dhingra talked about various programs offered to Wakefield including the INTERFACE program available to help parents and anyone in the community to connect to mental health resources.

Kausek talked about the mobile crisis intervention services offered by Elliot Community Human Services. She said that Elliot was grateful for the opportunity that Wakefield has offered for Elliot to take on a more proactive than reactive role, especially with kids.

She said that Elliot’s services are available to anyone in the school community – teachers, parents and students, who have a concern. They can call and speak to a clinician about the best course of action for the individual situation and the school community.

Kausek talked about the number of interventions that Elliot was called to do in the Wakefield schools, which she said had increased from 37 in 2012 to 59 in the first six months of 2013. She suggested that the higher number was indicative of improvements in identifying potential problems.

School Committee member Greg Liakos asked how students are screened in terms of identifying issues early on.

Levene said that the schools do not do universal screening but if a student shows signs of extreme distress, a preliminary assessment will be done and if further assistance is needed Elliot would be called in.

In response to another question, Dhingra acknowledged that many substance abusers have co-occurring mental health issues. She said that it is important to recognize signs of anxiety early on, before the student begins self-medicating.

Kausek reminded the committee that Elliot has clinicians who patrol with police. She also stressed that the School Resource Officer can also be an important part of addressing potential issues with students.

School Committee member Chris Callanan asked about overcoming parental denial when a student is identified as needing help.

Levene said that trust is the foundation when working with families. He said it’s important to show the family the resources available and to also be prepared to suggest alternative approaches that may be more acceptable in certain situations.

Cunningham stressed that particularly with respect to suicide prevention it is important for students to understand that if they see or hear something from one of their friends that is worrisome, it’s OK to go to a trusted adult.

She talked about ways that the schools and the community partners have helped build that trust between students and trusted adults, such as school adjustment counselors, and break down any stigma students may feel about discussing something that’s bothering them.

“Just having somebody from outside come in and talk about this helps break down the stigma as well,” Cunningham said.