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Here's what Baltimore’s public schools are doing to combat a mental health crisis

Students gathered for a morning meeting at Abbottston Elementary School.
Zshekinah Collier
Students gathered for a morning meeting at Abbottston Elementary School.

Nearly 143,000 children across Maryland have developed anxiety and depression since the coronavirus pandemic began 31 months ago, federal mental health data crunched by a local nonprofit shows. In 2016, roughly 9.4% of individuals between 3 years old and 17 years old were diagnosed with depression or anxiety across the state, according to the Annie E Casey Foundation’s Kids Count Data Book. By the end of 2020, nearly 13% of youth statewide had such diagnoses.

Nationwide, there are more than 7.3 million youth struggling with depression and anxiety, an increase of 1.5 million between 2016 and 2020.

In Baltimore, the public school district expanded a team of professionals in the school system to help students tackle mental health issues exacerbated by lack of in-person learning, canceled after school activities and more isolation to curb the spread of the virus. These employees are known as student wellness support teams.

School leaders said that while students are resilient, the need for mental health has grown.

“It's layered on top of a lot of challenges that our young people already face,” said Sarah Warren, executive director of the whole child services and support at Baltimore City Public Schools. “So it's not that it's brand new here in Baltimore. It's compounding existing stresses and challenges.”

The goal is to raise awareness in students and parents to know which staff members are available to support them, Warren said.

All elementary schools across the district now have morning meetings as emotional check-ins before students begin for the day and mental health meetings for all middle school and high school students with adults, she said.

The district is focused on the concepts of student wholeness, restorative practices, and dedicated time for students to build relationships with classmates and teachers.

“Relationship building is also foundational for teaching and learning, because the best teaching and learning occurs when there is a strong, connected relationship between student and teacher and among the students in a classroom,” she said.

The Maryland State Department of Education was allocated more than $3 billion from the American Rescue Plan Act for mental health programs.

Maryland’s schools are poised to get another influx to tackle mental health after the Biden Administration signed the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act into law which earmarks $1 billion nationwide over the next five years to increase school-based mental health services for both students and staff.

But there’s been a bottleneck when it comes to hiring mental health professionals, school officials said.

“At this stage, money is not actually our issue, it really is being able to find and hire enough qualified clinicians to do the work that we need to do with our students,” Warren said.

Each public school in Baltimore has at least one social worker but it’s been tough to hire more mental health clinicians due to labor shortages nationwide.

The district has been able to bolster mental health support with its Expanded School Behavioral Health Program, which brings clinicians from local organizations into schools.

Students of color have a particularly difficult time with mental health compared to their white peers, federal data shows. Millions of students under 18 years old said they felt judged unfairly based on their race or ethnicity, data shows.

In Baltimore, there’s a program that works with students to help them heal from trauma caused by racism in daily life.

The Health Youth Alliance is a partnership between the University of Maryland School of Social Work, the Black Mental Health Alliance, and Heartsmiles.

Kyla Liggett-Creel leads the alliance as its executive director and is an associate clinical professor at The University of Maryland, Baltimore.

“The goal is to really help young people learn about mental health, healing, and resilience in the African-American community, after the training, the young people begin to become trainers and advocates,” Liggett-Creel said.

Over the course of 24 weeks, youth ambassadors study and research topics such as depression, systematic racism, anxiety, eating disorders, and self-harm. With guidance from the university’s graduate students, they also focus on learning about healing-centered practices for trauma recovery.

Janiah Fields, is a sophomore at McDaniel College, she became an ambassador when she was a student at Baltimore Polytechnic High School.

She said seeing her peers’ need for mental health support led her to join the alliance and create a self-care club at school.

“At some point, we have to find ways to build new outlets of healing for people who are experiencing things that the rest of the world may not be experiencing, especially in Baltimore.” Fields said.

Field said the coping strategies that she learned as an Ambassador helped improve her mental health. She added that eliminating the stigma around mental health could encourage more youth to get the help they need.

“Our youth are going to be our next teachers, lawyers, and doctors,'' Fields said. “We need to equip them with the right mental knowledge as well as academic knowledge in order for them to be successful and functioning adults.”

Editors Note: This story has been updated to accurately reflect Baltimore City Public School's plans.

Zshekinah Collier is WYPR’s 2022-2023 Report for America Corps Member, where she covers Education. @Zshekinahgf
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