WOBURN — Amid an uptick in student mental health issues in recent years, Massachusetts Education Secretary Patrick Tutwiler said Thursday he plans to develop state guidance on mental health education for public schools.
Similar to the updated health, physical, and sex education framework the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education unanimously approved last week, the mental and behavioral health framework would be a set of guidelines and recommendations for how schools and teachers could teach about mental health in all grades, Tutwiler said.
“What we want to do is establish a strategy around mental health and that, quite frankly, does not exist,” Tutwiler said in an interview with the Globe on Thursday.
Tutwiler announced his desire to create the framework at Woburn Memorial High School during a roundtable discussion with students, teachers, and mental health and youth suicide prevention experts about the struggles students experience and the supports they want to see in schools.
After hearing students’ personal stories in a closed, private discussion, Tutwiler and Secretary of Health and Human Services Kate Walsh, who also joined the event, shared their major takeaways with educators and others in attendance.
“Their ability to articulate specifically what their challenges are, I think is just incredible, and also sends a signal to the adults, the caretakers, the educators, that we should be listening to them about what their needs are,” said Tutwiler.
Walsh said students indicated they are managing their own mental health needs, turning to their families or coaches, because they lack access to mental health professionals.
“It made me think that maybe there’s a better way for us to do this,” Walsh said. “We don’t ask people with other illnesses to case manage themselves.”
One Woburn High senior said the pressure to be high achieving in school and sports, as well as make critical decisions about what college to choose and major to pursue, has negatively affected his mental health. Other students expressed that there aren’t clear steps for who they can go to or what resources are available when they or someone they know needs mental health support.
Another student suggested that regular, one-on-one, in-person mental health screenings could identify students who are struggling and connect them with help or services.
Tutwiler said some school districts, including Boston Public Schools, perform free mental health screenings on every student and offer robust training for staff. The state currently allots $6 million to Social Emotional Learning Grants, including at least $1 million to implement the Comprehensive Behavioral Health model, the one BPS uses, in select districts.
Tutwiler said he had hoped that the state Legislature would expand the funding for the Comprehensive Behavioral Health program in the budget for the upcoming fiscal year, but lawmakers did not increase funding for it. He plans to push for more funding in the next budget cycle. He also wants to add professional development programs for educators to help ensure warning signals in students do not go unnoticed.
Representatives from the mental health nonprofit The Nan Project pointed to their peer-to-peer model as one way to spread awareness and education about mental health and suicide prevention; young adult mentors share their personal stories with students in a classroom setting, which sparks discussions about mental health. Students also are provided information about access to mental health resources.
“We call them ‘comeback’ stories because they do focus on the challenges that somebody went through, but also end on that note of help of, ‘Here was the adult that I talked to that helped me get support for the first time,’ or, ‘These were the coping skills that really changed things for me,’” said Lizzie MacLellan, assistant director of The Nan Project.
“I wish someone had come into my classroom and given a presentation like that,” said Shannon Stamps, a 22-year-old Peer Mentor with The Nan Project. “Even a presentation I just did this week, you think the quiet kid in the back is not really paying attention and after the presentation, they’ll come up to you and be like, ‘Oh, this really impacted me.’”