With the first day of classes just one week away, Waterford's superintendent identified mental health as one of the district's major priorities for the school year.
"Definitely," said Thomas Giard, Superintendent of Waterford Public Schools. "It is probably our top priority."
Like so many school districts across the country, Giard said that Waterford has seen increased levels of anxiety, depression, and social isolation since the pandemic began.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention conducted a nationwide analysis. According to the data released in March of 2022, more than a third of high school students reported they experienced poor mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic, and 44 percent reported they persistently felt sad or hopeless during the past year.
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"We know that if kids aren't mentally ready to learn, their ability to absorb academics is that much more difficult, if not impossible," said Giard.
Waterford is not alone in prioritizing mental health needs this school year. According to the Connecticut State Department of Education, most school districts are.
"I think schools are working hard to meet the need," said John Frassinelli, Director of the Division of School Health, Nutrition, and Family Services. "There certainly is a significant need as a result of the last two years."
Frassinelli said not only did the pandemic expose mental health needs of students, but it also exposed the need for Connecticut's behavioral health system to expand.
In June, Governor Ned Lamont signed three bills into law that all aim to increase access to mental health services for children. The legislation set aside millions of state dollars to invest in behavioral health. Some of the funding will be used to hire additional school psychologists, school social workers, and to expand School Based Health Centers.
"We are working with a number of state agencies sort of on the front end to make sure students have access to those things, but also to create more capacity in the behavioral health system," said Frassinelli.
In addition to state funding, the CSDE said that many school districts are using federal COVID relief dollars to increase mental health resources.
In Waterford, the school district designated half of their federal COVID relief funding to mental health resources, Giard said. Since the pandemic began, they have hired additional school psychologists and social workers.
"In the high school, we have been able to put in a therapeutic day program for some of our students who need that much more support," said Giard.
Waterford also opened two School Based Health Centers (SBHCs) last year. The centers are in their high school and middle school, but service students in all schools. The centers offer physical and mental health care to students.
"We saw several hundred visits last year on the mental health side which tells us there is a need," said Giard. "I think it goes back to that mindset that if kids aren't mentally in a place to learn, they aren't going to absorb the academics."
United Way 211 can also help connect parents to programs and services in their area. 211 also offers support during a crisis.