It’s not OK to stay not OK

Countless factors have contributed to the perception of childhood having changed from an idyllic, worry-free paradise to a war zone fraught with landmines that often require expert assistance to navigate. Social media and a constant barrage of information undoubtedly triggers a huge uptick in childhood anxiety, an increasingly competitive landscape for academic and social achievement, and parental stressors over job security, strained relationships, aging extended family members and myriad other challenges leave today’s kids with abundant sources of worry and inadequate resources to manage them.

The Mental Health America’s 2022 State of Mental Health in America Annual Report painted a concerning picture. Data points it cites include:
  • Just over 15% of children experienced a major depressive order within the past year.
  • More than 60% of kids with major depression received no mental health treatment services.
  • Approximately 10.6% of children, or more than 2.5 million young people, report having severe depression; multiracial kids suffer at a rate of 14.5%.
The report notes that data was collected for the report through 2019, so these daunting concerns have almost certainly amplified since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and its far-reaching impact on children: loved ones who died or suffered long-term illness, profound social isolation, and distance learning with glitchy technology that didn’t always match the efficacy of in-class instruction.

Thankfully, as the difficulties kids face amid a complex world intensify, resources to help them have correspondingly strengthened. Beech Acres Parenting Center, which was founded in 1849 to house orphans, has gradually evolved to provide a broad array of services that support children. In 2004, Beech Acres began offering school-based services, and its offerings have evolved into the Beyond the Classroom™ program, which places staff on school campuses that are available to every student.

Carrie Bunger, Ph.D., Beech Acres’ vice president of effective school solutions
Carrie Bunger, Ph.D., a veteran educator who currently serves as Beech Acres’ vice president of effective school solutions, noted that attitudes about mental-health treatment have shifted: “Stigma still exists around mental-health treatment, but it’s become less of a barrier. Appreciation of the need for mental-health treatment has grown since COVID. It’s OK to not be OK, but it’s not OK to stay not OK.”

Bunger noted the importance of creating positive habits: “An important thing parents can do is provide predictability and routine before school starts. This includes a consistent sleep schedule, regular diet and exercise, and making sure they have regular social contact with friends.”

She also said that parents can help prepare their children for success by attending open houses and other school activities to build trust and familiarity with teachers, administrators, and staff.

The paraphrased adage states that all happy families look alike, but unhappy families can be miserable in a million different ways. Whether a family is unsheltered, faces food insecurity, or enduring domestic disruptions, the challenges are numerous and complex.

To help meet students and their families where they are and help them navigate such challenges, Beech Acres has embedded within 32 Southern Ohio schools – a cross-section of public and private, urban, and suburban – therapists and support staff that provide a sounding board and age-appropriate tools and strategies to help kids cope, and ultimately thrive. Three principals at schools that utilize Beech Acres services describe the difference their presence has made with supporting students.

Sarah Lord, Sands Montessori

Sands Montessori is a K-6 Cincinnati Public School in Mt. Washington with more than 600 students that follows Maria Montessori’s educational model of self-paced, experiential learning. Principal Sarah Lord has been an educator for 26 years, the last ten in Montessori schools, with eight years at Sands.

“In recent years, we’ve seen a marked increase in students’ anxiety and dependence on technology to focus, and sometimes even to regulate emotions,” she said. “During the seven years Sands Montessori has been aligned with Beech Acres, they’ve been a tremendous asset in providing student support. Their team has done great work in helping students identify emotions and regulating them.”

Lord praised Beech Acres’ character-education program as “a key aspect that … helps promote our peaceful school environment. Beech Acres staff trained our school staff about the meaning of … 24 character strengths [and] strategies to acknowledge and celebrate them in students.” 

She also lauded the program for helping students learn how to master skills and strengths. A specific strength is highlighted and emphasized on the morning announcements every week. Students learn to identify their key strengths, and learn that innate and acquired skills are not finite and may be continually developed.

Key strategies students learn include anger management and conflict resolution to manage emotions and enhance classroom focus. Therapist-led student groups help students learn to better manage relationships, affirm, and build effective work habits.

Jim Schurrer, DePaul Cristo Rey High School

Schurrer has worked in education for 19 years and is beginning his second as DePaul Cristo Rey’s principal. The school is part of the Cristo Rey Network, a nonprofit that operates 38 high schools modeled after Chicago’s Cristo Rey Jesuit High School, providing a Catholic college-prep education for students with limited resources. Children whose families’ incomes exceed 250% of the federal poverty level can’t enroll there. Most families pay only $500 in annual tuition, and students are involved in work-study programs.

He reflected on how students’ mental-health management has become prioritized: “When I entered the field in 2005, mental health simply wasn’t talked about. Today, the [Ohio High School Athletic Association] requires every coach to receive mental-health training to make sure they’re supporting athletes’ emotional and physical needs. We’re hard-wired to connect and have relationships with others. Losing these opportunities during COVID-19 created isolation and hindered both education and social connections.”

Currently, DePaul Cristo Rey maintains a staff of three full-time and one part-time Beech Acres professionals, which includes an intake specialist, a social worker, and licensed therapist with crisis-response training. Schurrer provided an apropos metaphor for supporting his students.

“We talk about our students carrying invisible backpacks,” he said. “Adolescence has always created a lot of weight for the backpack, and the challenges of recent years have added to it. Beech Acres helps us create a safe, comfortable environment to help students ease the burden they’re carrying by being keenly aware of the burdens our students are carrying.”

Among DePaul Cristo Rey’s approximately 300 students, Schurrer noted that more than 200 accessed onsite Beech Acres staff for support. He noted that it’s important to be nimble and responsive to help students manage the volatility of high-school relationships. To help students prepare for the new school year, Schurrer noted that Beech Acres is backstopping the school’s efforts to engage families with a summer bridge program for incoming first-year students that entails a two-week program with three hours of daily classes to help students become better acquainted.

In summary, Schurrer said, “The mental-health crisis is not going away. The deeper we establish relationships and roots in our communities, the more successful outcomes we’ll have.”

Lauren Clements, Corryville Catholic

Having previously served as a first- and second-grade teacher, Lauren Clements is beginning her fifth year as the principal at Corryville Catholic, a small parochial school with approximately 200 students enrolled from preschool through eighth grade. Coryville Catholic is part of the Catholic Inner-City Schools Education (CISE) program, which provides low-cost Catholic education for students with financial needs. Like many CISE institutions, more than 90% of its students receive free or reduced-price lunches.

In her 19 years in education, she’s noted the profound contrast in how mental health is addressed now versus then: “When I began as a teacher, every school had a psychologist, but their role primarily managed academic testing. Any determined need for therapy was outsourced. Students’ mental-health needs have changed dramatically due to increased academic and social pressure, the trauma they’ve been exposed to in their lives and challenges with developing coping skills. The isolation and learning gap caused by COVID-19 created a perfect storm of challenges. Teachers today have to fulfill a myriad of roles, but they don’t have training in mental-health counseling. Our relationship with Beech Acres has been extremely helpful.”

Clements said that one of the most important things parents can do to support students’ mental health is a willingness to discuss mental health and maintaining open communications. Because Beech Acres provides in-school mental health counseling and support services, she said it’s been easier to build trust and familiarity with parents in addition to greater convenience.

Often, simple early interventions provide effective tools to manage volatile feelings and cope with challenges. Many mental-health issues don’t present in children until late elementary or middle school years, which makes it vital to establish solid self-care habits at an early age. Educating teachers is also an important program facet; prior to the school year’s beginning, every Corryville Catholic teacher and staff member meets with the school’s Beech Acres team to learn how to identify and assist students undergoing trauma.

“As social-media usage increases in the fourth through eighth grade, bullying becomes much more commonplace and poses a threat to mental health,” Clements said. “Our Beech Acres partnership gave us valuable resources that helped us provide education on what bullying is and its impact. By being proactive, we were able to significantly decrease bullying occurrences among our students.”

Find out more about Beyond the Classroom™ including a list of participating schools in the area. 
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Steve Aust.

Steve is a freelance writer and editor, father, and husband who enjoys cooking, exercise, travel, and reading. A native of Fort Thomas who spent his collegiate and early-adulthood years in Georgia, marriage brought him across the river, where he now resides in Oakley.