This past year, as the COVID-19 pandemic forced us all to social distance and move our lives online for the safety of ourselves and our communities, Connecticut’s students have quietly suffered. Health agencies report that feelings of isolation and anxiety among youth are at a record-high, and while the pandemic and other stressful world events have exacerbated these struggles, they are not new for many students. 

Sarah McKinnis

Adolescent mental health has long been an under-addressed and under-resourced issue. CDC data shows that rates of anxiety and depression among adolescents have been increasing in the past several decades, and evidence from pediatric studies suggests that because of pandemic-related changes, the teen suicide rate in the U.S. increased over the past year. Tragically, several Connecticut communities have found themselves part of this statistic.

As a graduate of Connecticut public schools, sister to three current public school students, and myself a college student in the state, the mental well-being of Connecticut’s children could not be of greater importance to me and my family. It is my firm belief that the state legislature needs to take action to provide students, teachers, and families with the necessary tools to address these challenges, particularly in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. Luckily, a bill in the Connecticut State Senate aims to do just that. SB2: An Act Concerning Social Equity And The Health, Safety And Education Of Children, represents the state’s first authentic attempt at addressing the mental health crisis plaguing our youth. 

While Connecticut enjoys a comparatively wealthy mental health resource landscape, students’ needs aren’t met equitably or consistently. This is especially pertinent for students attending schools in Connecticut that are under resourced and have far too few mental health professionals for their students. In the 2019-2020 school year, Bassick High School in Bridgeport had only 7.8 full-time equivalent (FTE) staff who were counselors, social workers, and school psychologists for more than 800 students —meaning that there was less than one (FTE) individual available for every one hundred students. These staff members are often the first line of defense in an emergency; their absence is sorely felt. This is an issue of equity as well. Lower-funded districts also tend to be those with a majority of Black or brown students, meaning that these students are disproportionately met with under-resourced mental health services. 

SB 2 takes important steps to mitigate these disparities by establishing required mental health screening and youth suicide prevention training for certain medical professionals, school employees, and other members of the community. In doing so, this bill enables other individuals who come in contact with adolescents and often have strong relationships with them to notice when a child or teen needs help. It also provides these people with tools to intervene and guide a student if the student opens up to them. While these trainings will introduce an additional cost, their promise is incalculable. We cannot continue to allow our children to struggle with their anxieties alone. 

In my own high school experience, I did my best work and felt good physically and mentally when I was supported by my teachers and coaches as a person — not just as a student or an athlete. SB 2’s mandated mental health screening and suicide prevention training, coupled with the bill’s incorporation of social-emotional learning in professional development standards, would give more teachers the tools to make this level of support a reality (and priority) for more children.

Another provision of SB 2 allows students in kindergarten through 12th grade to take up to four mental health days off each year. Especially in high school, I remember having a high workload and becoming very stressed about pressures to succeed in academics, while excelling in sports and extracurriculars. Pressures placed on students add up, and it becomes overwhelming at times. I know I would have greatly benefited from being able to take a mental health day off. 

In Connecticut’s schools, it’s very difficult to do that. Beyond easing immediate burdens, legitimizing responsiveness to mental health concerns reduces stigma and promotes healthy practices. It is no less real or important to take care of one’s mental health than one’s physical health, though that messaging is often lost on students. I remember peers billing burnout to the school nurse as “strep throat” or the catch-all stomach bug, pretending to be ill to tend to their mental wellbeing. Or even worse (though likely more popular), refusing to take a day off because they didn’t feel justified in taking care of themselves when they weren’t physically ill. Unfortunately when this happens, students continue to push themselves to their breaking point, and their health and their learning suffer. SB 2 would go a long way towards changing this culture.

After conversations with my siblings, public school students, teachers, and administrators, and informed by my own experiences in Connecticut public schools, I’ve formed a strong opinion in support of SB 2. Passing this bill would be a crucial step in addressing and improving the social-emotional and educational outcomes of all students in the state. As such, I urge the legislature to take action to swiftly pass this bill, and I encourage anyone who feels passionately about this issue to contact their legislators and voice their support for SB 2 as well. Connecticut students are counting on us to deliver for them.

Sarah McKinnis of Fairfield is a member of the Yale College Democrats.

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