When our colleague Laura Ornest asks, “what message you would send to legislators,” Kristel Thyrring, Director of Youth Mental Health Programs and Libby Wright, Coordinator at NAMI Maine respond, “Help us to better help you, Help us work upstream.” Kristel and Libby speak passionately about the need for a new and systemic approach to improve the mental and emotional health of Maine’s students and educators. “The pandemic shed light on the many gaps between the mental health services and the education system. There has always been a need to improve access to mental health in Maine, but the pandemic increased that demand and we found no system in place to back up the need.” The challenge is less a funding issue than finding the time to train educators whose time is already in overdrive. You will hear in this conversation these major issues:
- Maine’s economic disparities place added burden on those of fewer resources.
- The cloying structural inequalities create huge barriers to accessing social and emotional health services desperately needed for families in crisis.
- Asked about the role schooling plays in increased anxiety, depression and isolation, our health experts suggest Maine’s education system needs an entire overhaul. Areas of immediate improvement could be:
- Rethinking seat time, reexamining the negative role standardized testing plays on both students, teachers, and the way we finance school budgets. Schools must figure out ways create customized learning for students. Students need a place where self-esteem is reinforced, where trauma and economic strife is not only understood but addressed by the school culture. Not doing so creates the conditions for aggravated mental health, placing larger demands on the system.
- A subset of the student population is thriving in virtual environments while other students suffer. Many of this subset are students who have, in the past, found school a source of anxiety for a variety of reasons and virtual leaning has been a source of solace and academic success.
- Training and deputizing social workers or community resource officers to meet students in their home or alternative sites, even taking a walk, enhances the recovery outcomes.
- Stigma remains a formidable barrier for individuals and families no matter what economic level but surely among those with scarce resources. Schools can and must do a better job at reducing stigma but also educating the entire school community, including food and janitorial staff to educators and administrators and aids.
NAMI has had great success providing a call-in “Crisis Line” (888) 568-1112 for emergencies and a “Warm Line” for those who just need to reach out for episodic support needs.
Maine is fortunate to have professionals like Kristin and Libby advocating for the needs of our citizens. Their wisdom, compassion and big hearts make them some of the best allies to reimagine what a world class education in Maine could be.