Concerned by the toll the COVID-19 pandemic is taking on the mental health of the city’s youth, Somerville is seeking to engage the public in addressing the problem.
In December the city launched “Together,” a campaign aimed at bringing greater attention to the social and emotional challenges facing Somerville’s school-aged children, and to forge a communitywide response to those problems.
A joint initiative of the school district and the city’s Health and Human Services Department, the campaign also seeks to educate families about available resources within and outside the schools for young people facing difficulties.
“We are seeing not just locally but nationally that youth are struggling in the wake of COVID-19,” said Susana Hernandez Morgan, the school district’s chief communications and development officer. “We all have a role to play in supporting youth. That’s what this campaign is about — how do we collectively support our youth and get them the help they need to thrive?”
The campaign includes the recent creation of a still-evolving website, somerville.k12.ma.us/together, that offers a comprehensive list of local mental health resources for students and their families. Somerville’s social media sites also are posting information about social-emotional health needs and where to find help.
Additionally through the campaign, special events are planned to spur communitywide dialogue about youth mental health, and teacher training will include more focus on the issue.
“We are really looking to ensure everyone understands that they can play an active role in being part of the solution,” said Chris Hosman, director of SomerPromise, a city Health and Human Services program that mobilizes community resources to address academic, social, and environmental factors affecting student success.
The findings of a survey of 1,200 Somerville middle and high school students earlier this year highlights the stresses facing many students, officials said. More than half of high school students and nearly a quarter of middle school students reported they struggled with their mental health “most of the time” or “always” during the pandemic.
Liz Doncaster, the district’s director of student services, said those findings are consistent with the social-emotional stresses schools have noticed in students.
“We are seeing anxiety about what is happening in the world now with COVID and beyond,” Doncaster said. On top of that, many students feel pressure to perform well academically after missing so much in-school time while continuing to absorb the effects of the loss of social interaction.
“We find there is a lot of stress for students in making their way with their peer groups again and trying to get along with them face-to-face,” Doncaster said.
Through the campaign, officials hope to better inform the community of the many resources that already exist to support young people — from school counselors, social workers, and case managers, to services offered by the Health and Human Services Department and local nonprofits.
Officials also are highlighting new investments Somerville made this fall to expand support for students, much of it through funding from the American Rescue Plan Act that President Biden signed into law in March. Included was the hiring of two new deans of students, a guidance counselor, two social workers, an adjustment counselor, and a multilingual social-emotional counselor, along with contracting with additional health providers.
Even with those new investments, officials concede there is still a need for more mental health services, including those targeted to students from immigrant communities. The city is exploring potential ways to meet that demand.
“We have a good foundation in place but we realize we do need to expand support,” Doncaster said.
“We must ensure our students, especially those facing the greatest stresses, have access to resources that can help them build both immediate and lifelong resiliency,” Katjana Ballantyne, who is scheduled to be sworn into office as mayor on Monday, said in a statement.
John Laidler can be reached at email@example.com.