Montgomery County allocates $8M for added student mental health services

By Nicole Asbury Washington Post April 21 2022

The Montgomery County Council is boosting funding for services offered to students in the county amid an escalating mental health crisis among children during the coronavirus pandemic.

The $8 million investment wouldinclude $2 million toward immediatelyestablishinginterim wellness centers at county high schools in existing space and relocatable classrooms, county officials said. More permanent facilities would be built at each high school over a five-year period.

The fundingpackage alsoallocates $3 million for mental health programming and $3 million for portable classrooms.

‘A cry for help’: CDC warns of a steep decline in teen mental health

Montgomery is one of many school systems across the country that has witnessed exacerbated mental health challenges among its student population. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned of the accelerating mental health crisis among youths in a report last month. A survey by the CDC found that 4 in 10 teenagers reported feeling “persistently sad or hopeless,” and 1 in 5 said they have contemplated suicide. And in October, the American Academy of Pediatrics declared a national emergency in child and adolescent mental health, noting soaring rates of depression, anxiety, trauma, loneliness and suicidal thoughts.

Northwood, Gaithersburg, Watkins Mill, Wheaton and Seneca Valley high schools already have school-based wellness centers. A sixth is being built at Kennedy High School.

Community members testified at a council meetingTuesday that the need for additional resources in schools was urgent.

“The few centers that we have are not enough,” Carmen Centeno, who works at Northwood High’s wellness center, told the council in Spanish through an interpreter. “The challenges that young people and their families are facing today are countless. We must act now before it’s too late.”

Back to school has brought guns, fighting and acting out

Identity, a Rockville-based nonprofit organization, runs four of the five school-based wellness centers.

The centers offer medical care, mental health and social services to students and their families. Each center also focuses on positive youth development, a county initiative that aims to curb violence and gang activity and support families that may have been exposed to complex trauma.

Identity Executive Director Diego Uriburu said in an interview that there are tremendous mental health needs everywhere. The wellness centers have an advantage, he said, because they serve both students and their family members, who may also be struggling. The wellness centers should also help elementary-age students and middle-schoolers, he said.

“These efforts are not just to help young people heal; it also has other benefits,” he said. Citing the increase in fighting and bullying that has been reported in schools, Uriburu said that having the system make a more robust effort on mental health could help with those issues, he said.

Council member NancyNavarro (D-District 4) spearheaded the funding effort. It was supported by the Montgomery County Board of Education and Superintendent Monifa B. McKnight, who over the past several months have heard testimony from students pushing for additional mental health support services after the pandemic kept many of them in virtual learning and away from their peers for almost two years.

McKnight has pledged to direct additional resources toward mental health services in schools. In a letter to parents and other community membersTuesday, McKnight wrote that school leaders were working on other initiatives including hiring and placing more social workers in high schools and exploring ways to add counselors and psychologists.11 CommentsGift Article