Great shout out to, Whitney Closson, MHANYS Director of Family Education, at our School Mental Health Resource and Training Center for discussing the role of the Center with the Troy Record and Saratogian. Also highlighted in the article was discussion about the impact of the Pandemic to young people related to mental health challenges in schools while also addressing concerns about bullying.

The contact information for MHANYS and the Center are listed below. Please feel free to reach out.

MHANYS Helping Students Cope with Mental Health Issues During Pandemic & Beyond

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. — The COVID-19 pandemic has been tough on everyone. That’s especially true of children. According to a recent study published in Pediatrics, an estimated 140,000 children in the U.S. have lost a parent or primary caregiver to the virus. Additionally, officials noted that children of racial and ethnic minorities accounted for 65 percent of that
total.

Those harrowing deaths, coupled with fewer wellness visits, and multiple stressors, can also impact youth mental health and well-being.

Discussing the topic of mental health issues affecting our youth and how we can forge stronger support systems, is Whitney Closson. Closson is a Family Education Specialist at the School Mental Health Resource & Training Center at Mental Health Association in New York State, Inc. (MHANYS). Closson recently spoke with The Saratogian and The Record on creating more
awareness around these issues.

One of the keys to that end according to Closson is starting an open conversation on the subject.

“It’s been a problem, it’s been something I think it’s becoming more comfortable talking about, just mental health in general. Adults, we even struggle with that to be authentic in our conversations when people ask us, ‘how’s your day?’ ‘how’s it going?’ right?” Most often we don’t really say how we’re doing or how we’re feeling, we say the answer that people are
going to be comfortable with right? ‘Oh everything’s fine.’” Closson said.

A Kaiser Family Foundation study published in February of this year noted four in 10 adults nationwide have reported symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder. As Closson notes, unfortunately, some of those stressors tend to be mimicked by children.

“Children, unfortunately, they model those behaviors. They learn very early on that, whether they have supports or not it’s going to look different, so a lot of students if that relationship is there, they’re going to know that support is there but for so many, the conversation’s not even happening and they don’t even know how they’re feeling, let alone how to identify those
feelings and then how to cope and pivot and change your life to cope with those sorts of things,” Closson explained regarding the adverse effect of children not being able to find a sound coping mechanism.

Closson also noted the unfortunate trend in bullying and suicide among youth becoming more and more of a hot topic issue. While we often hear about how “kids are resilient,” Closson spoke to the importance of early intervention. That early intervention is ever more crucial, given that according to the Children’s Hospital Association, the suicide rate among those 10 to 24 was on the rise, and in the first half of 2021 there was a 45% jump in reported cases of self-injury and suicide among kids 5-17
compared to 2019.

“The statistics are very shocking in terms of youth mental health, so the resource center and this family engagement project have really tried to I think be proactive as much as possible to respond to the current needs but also be prepared for what’s to come in the wake of COVID with two years of social isolation,” Closson remarked on efforts to help students out.

“And for some kids, we’re hearing bullying if it’s happening in the school, maybe they’re liking working from home if they have a place where the access is there in their comfortable, safe environment. For some students it might be a positive but for others that social isolation and that disengagement piece can really further exacerbate mental health challenges that they’re struggling with, especially for those depressed students and those who are already struggling with suicide,” Closson explained on different situations and their effect on students.

“We kind of go through the Mental Health America model, we’re under their umbrella. So, some recent stats from them, they were sharing that suicide was still the second leading cause of death of youth ages 10 to 24, which just as a person in the world, I’m not a parent or caregiver necessarily but I’m very shocked by that,” Closson remarked on the statistics.

“To me, I think adolescence they’re still so full of joy and energy and there’s so much hope for the world and you want to look at them as just like they have their whole lives ahead of them but unfortunately for so many of them, they’re already struggling so significantly to the point where one in 12 high school students have actually attempted suicide, according to Mental Health America, which if you look at an auditorium full of kids right, that’s a lot. And just things like that I think you know they sound glaring on paper but you really have to just look at your
community and look at the kids in your neighborhood and say like one in 12, that’s not acceptable and that’s something that we’re really going to try to tackle through prevention and education and resource development,” Closson noted on the importance of highlighting those figures as more than solely statistics.

“And with that bullying piece, it was around 28 percent of students [who] experience bullying and 70 percent of school staff say they’ve witnessed it but also a lot of times they don’t know how to properly step in and resolve issues so again that’s where we come in with a lot of the trauma-informed care, crisis response, de-escalation, really knowing how to validate and support youth, how to have that conversation because I think sometimes people can be caught off guard,” Closson explained on the importance of being able to communicate different strategies with stakeholders.

Closson also detailed how MHANYS is helping create support for that endeavor.

“A lot of people who are in the education system may know about our resource center but essentially MHANYS got funding from New York state to support a 2016 law that went into effect requiring schools in New York to teach about mental health in their K-12 curriculum,” Closson said.

“So, they decided this is important and we need to get it into the classrooms but then they didn’t really know what to do from there. So, the resource center was funded in order to help teachers and educators to get that technical assistance to work on curriculum development and really talk about mental health, social, emotional learning, and those different traumas and factors that kids face before they even come into the classroom,” Closson continued.

“In order to be successful in your learning, you have to show up and be able to learn and for so many students, they’re managing multiple stressors or multiple diagnoses at home and coming to school, if they can make it there, is just one piece in how they perform and how they do is another struggle,” Closson explained.

“The resource center was kind of designed to support educators in that way but then we saw if we’re going to make this really work for students we have to involve the families, we have to get the families engaged because that’s where those conversations are happening. We need to see what’s going on at home first. So, the family education project became a new focus and
that was funded from Mother Cabrini Health Foundation to specifically work on empowering families and caregivers of high-risk youth, underserved populations and really focused on just getting the conversation started but also getting those resources out there and giving people tangible tools that they can use when these conversations come up,” Closson noted, adding that they are trying to create a space where people can come and find information, resources and continue to get the help that they need.

Ultimately, Closson emphasized the importance of increased peer advocacy and involvement from all community stakeholders to the benefit of addressing youth mental health issues. To that end, Gov. Kathy Hochul recently announced that the New York State Office of Mental Health has secured $4 million in federal funds for workforce recruitment and retention
that will help strengthen the state’s mental health system by increasing access to peer services that support individuals and families in a wide array of treatment and service options.

“Talking about this isn’t going to make it a problem for kids. I think sometimes people are very hesitant to talk about things like suicide or mental health or self-harm because they feel it’s going to give that idea to people and it’s going to encourage them to feel or think a certain way but we know that that’s not true, it’s a huge myth buster. We know that talking about these things actually does prevent them from happening and half of all chronic mental illnesses do kind of begin to present and have an offset effect by age 14, so at that point, it’s a little too late, not
too late but it could be potentially a lot of room to make up for if you start that,” Closson reiterated on the vital need for early intervention.

“Even with adults, we know you could be struggling but on average adults wait 10 years to get help for their mental health, which is unheard of. I mean, if you had a broken leg you would never wait that long, if you fell down the stairs and you were bleeding, you would never wait that long to go fix a physical ailment that was impacting your day-to-day function especially. But for some reason, anything above the shoulders, people just have this disconnect and we can’t talk about it, it’s taboo but really our work is to just get in on that ground level,” Closson continued on
addressing the issue as much as we take care of physical injuries.

Closson also spoke about how they’re attempting to help kids overcome societal stressors.

“We want to connect with the K-12 teachers but mostly the youth who are still developing. Kids are talking about mental health, that’s not new. I think this generation is definitely a little bit more open than maybe even my generation, you know I graduated high school in 2006 but so much has changed for youth just during that time and I think they’re very vocal these days and they’re very aware of the issues that they’re facing in the schools, they’re very aware of potential issues they’ll be facing longterm with climate change and access to healthcare and all those things that kids shouldn’t be stressed about, they are. So they’re aware of it, we just have to get the supporters and the teachers and the families on board with the conversation as well,” Closson explained.

Additionally, Closson noted the importance of forging constructive strategies toward opening up about mental health topics.

“So really it’s just about empowering people early on to have that conversation and make it part of your lifestyle at home. So many kids learn just by modeling the behaviors of the people around them right? So if you’re showing up every day frustrated from work and you’re having explosive reactions, chances are when your child’s frustrated they may learn to do the same but if you’re counteracting that and you’re using skills and you’re talking about your feelings and emotions and you’re processing problems, those things early on literally become lifestyles for
folks,” Closson said.

“I do just like to say it’s never too late to start this work, I think some people feel like ‘oh you know I’ve been struggling for so long, but you know any day that you decide to try something new or to reach out for help is the day this journey can begin for folks. So, while we really encourage people of all ages to get that help, we really want to focus on that prevention piece with our kids to kind of set them up for success moving forward after all of this,” Closson added.

If you’d like more information on mental health resources, Closson noted you can visit their website Mental Health Association in New York State, Inc. (MHANYS) www.mhanys.org or The School Mental Health Resource and Training Center www.mentalhealthednys.org, where you can find information on mental health conversation starters, six ways to encourage good mental
health habits, both in English and Spanish, as well as archived webinars.

In addition, MHANYS is hosting a webinar on Tuesday, Nov. 9 on “Fostering Wellness: Starting with the Brain,” from 3:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m.

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