As Needham Youth Grapple with Mental Health Challenges, Community Steps Up

October 20, 2023
• As students recover from years of remote and hybrid learning, the pandemic’s impacts linger when it comes to their mental well-being.

The Needham Community Council, a private nonprofit working to meet unmet needs in the community, aims to inspire an open dialogue with its Mindful Community: Talking Mental Health Together speaker series starting Oct. 26 at Memorial Park Fieldhouse at 7 p.m. The event kicks off with “Hope Starts With Us,” an informative video produced by the National Alliance on Mental Illness that will share how students are currently feeling and coping post-pandemic.

The program will also host Dr. Lisa Damour, a psychologist and author, to discuss how adults can assist in their teens’ transition into adulthood on Nov. 8.

Before the pandemic, experts already observed a rise in mental health challenges among young adults that has now exploded, thanks in part to social isolation and social media, said Cathy Wong, outreach director of community awareness on mental health at NCC. That’s where the speaker series comes in.

“We know that this is a growing problem,” Wong said, “and the council wants to put some effort around educating the community about what mental health is, trying to reduce the stigma of it, so that people are willing to talk about it and therefore able to get help.”

NCC Executive Director Sandra Robinson said they aim to educate “the layperson,” those who are part of children’s lives but lack the training and mental acuity to spot problems and properly assist.

“Schools are doing all sorts of things with the teachers and with the students, but it’s the adults that are not part of that, the grandparents, the coaches, the Girl Scout leaders, the religious leaders, that are just out there floundering,” Robinson said. “That’s who we’re hoping to get information to.”

Conversations around youth mental health are important now more than ever, said Dana Plunkett, NPS director of counseling for grades 7-12. The pandemic’s negative impact on students’ mental health is slowly improving, Plunkett said, but recent data shows students are missing school more frequently than before the pandemic and underperforming their 2019 predecessors.

When COVID hit, freshmen at NHS were in fifth grade, which is a critical time for kids to develop socially, emotionally and academically, Plunkett said. Because of that, they’re seeing fewer “socially skilled students” than prior to the pandemic.

“We’re not only having to deal with managing the academic expectations and moderating our expectations,” she said, “but we’re also looking at social behaviors that have not been typical of high school students prior to the pandemic.”

About one-third of Needham highschoolers reported “their life was very stressful in the past 30 days,” according to a MetroWest Adolescent Health Survey conducted in 2021. From 2018 and 2021, more students — from 33% to 42%— shared they felt anxious or nervous the majority of days in the last two weeks, the survey found.

The pandemic — coupled with larger sociopolitical issues, such as the crisis in the Middle East — have contributed to feelings of anxiety, Plunkett said.

School counselors and clinicians are supporting students by working through their feelings and helping them gain the skills and coping mechanisms to handle difficult moments, Plunkett said. But, it takes a village.

Sara Shine, director of Needham’s Youth and Family Services, said she’s observing “a significant increase in mental health need” in both quantity and acuity. More people are contacting her office for assistance, and the challenges they’re experiencing are more severe: debilitating anxiety, suicidal ideation and eating disorders among younger children.

A series of Needham High suicides rocked the community between 2006 and 2009. Local pressure on teens to achieve success is only adding fuel to the fire, Shine said.

“For Needham youth, I think that means you get a good education, you do well in school and you go to college, and if you don’t, if you’re struggling, that just increases your stress… That’s the expectation of what happens in Needham,” Shine said. “I think that makes it tough too, and there’s a lot of studies that also show, post a big event like a pandemic, suicide rates increase significantly.”

Seeking medical care for a broken arm is much simpler than seeking mental health care, Wong said, and NCC hopes to guide people through the system to find the help they need. While resources vary depending on types of mental illnesses, Wong said there is a space and path for all.

“It’s not just one path that everyone follows,” Wong said. “Everyone’s got a different situation, and we want to make sure that they know that there’s resources that will help them identify what’s the best path for them.”

Natural mood cycles are normal, but significant changes in behavior could signal larger issues, Shine said.

“Teenagers are supposed to be testing limits with parents and spending more time with friends,” she said.

If your teen stops enjoying things they once loved, isolates from friends, speaks negatively about themselves or speaks about suicide, Shine said it’s possible cause for concern.

Youth and Family Services offers a free Youth Mental Health First Aid class, where residents learn how to recognize those symptoms and respond in different situations. Shine said they hope to roll out a similar program at NHS soon.

For teens feeling overwhelmed, anxious or upset, Plunkett said the counseling office encourages them to practice mindfulness breathing exercises, visualization and personal distraction techniques, such as listening to music or coloring.

Those struggling should know they’re not alone, she said.

“Needham is a very unique community,” Plunkett said. “If there’s a concern or an issue, it really pulls together and says, ‘We all own a piece of finding the solution.’”

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