By MARK SARDELLA
WAKEFIELD — Nearly half of parents with kids in K-12 schools are concerned about their children’s mental health and 22 percent believe their children are behind grade level, according to the results of a recent statewide poll.
That finding seemed to be confirmed locally by Wakefield Public Schools Mental Health Coordinator Andrew Cedrone, who told the School Committee this week that Wakefield students are presenting as more socially and academically immature than in the past.
Cedrone was at the School Committee meeting to provide an update on school counseling services. He was joined by Wakefield Memorial High School Director of Guidance David Robinson, Galvin school psychologist Jen Hart and Catherine Dhingra, Substance Abuse Coordinator for the Wakefield Health Department.
Cedrone said that while recent screenings of 7th grade students showed low numbers for substance abuse, a suicide and depression screening of 215 local 8th graders revealed that 18 students (8 percent) screened high for thoughts of suicide. In those cases, Cedrone said, parents were contacted immediately and mental health services were also consulted.
Robinson said that among high school freshmen, the substance abuse screenings also showed low numbers, but 13 students screened high for suicidal thoughts and nine screened positive for signs of depression.
Cedrone confirmed that an increase in mild to moderate mental health concerns is also being seen among local students.
Hart said that she has been working with 5th graders for 12 years and is seeing behaviors she has has never seen before in terms of the level of disrespect exhibited by some students. She said that her office at the Galvin Middle School is “busier than ever.”
“I’ve never seen a parade of students like I’ve seen this year,” she said.
Hart acknowledged that since the pandemic she has seen an increase in the need among students for mental health support. She said that school counselors are doing their best to bridge the gap with a shortage of mental health services available outside of school due to the high demand.
Dhingra described her role as one of providing support to the schools in terms of data regarding substance abuse and mental health. Dhingra said that 24 students at Wakefield Memorial High School have been referred to a “diversion program” for substance abuse this year, mainly for issues related to vaping, THC and alcohol use. She said that despite the low numbers seen in the screenings, anecdotal reports suggest more substance use may be going on.
Under the diversion program, students identified in school using substances are sent to a two-hour after school class and intensive one-on-one followup. The focus is on reducing suspensions and getting students the help they need. Cedrone said that the technique is rooted in “restorative justice” and called it an opportunity to “establish a trusting, non-judgment approach to substance abuse.”
Dhingra also discussed the Interface Referral Program, which has been available to parents and others in Wakefield for five years. The program matches individuals to mental health services. She said that 91 local people used the service this year.
In response to a question from the School Committee, Cedrone, Hart, Robinson and Dhingra all agreed that they have seen a reduction in stigma related to seeking out counseling, both on the part of students and parents.
Responding to another question, there was agreement that “executive functioning” skills took a hit during COVID, in part due to the isolation and reliance on technology. The counseling team said that they are seeing more “social anxiety” now that face-to-face interactions have returned.
There was also some discussion on ways to regulate kids use of social media. Hart said that she has seen an uptick in students posting inappropriate things about teachers on social media.