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Combating Mental Health Issues In Public Schools

P.S. X811's Mindfulness Room

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In the past year, New York City police intervened in nearly three-thousand incidents in public schools involving students in emotional distress who were taken to hospitals for psychological evaluations, according to a report from the Advocates for Children of New York.

Seventeen year old Robert Rivera smiled from ear to ear as he sat on a green bean bag and talked about P.S. X811’s new “mindfulness” room. The Bronx school was one of fifteen in New York City to receive a ten thousand dollar grant from the Department of Health. The grant allowed schools to turn pre-existing rooms into places for self expression or self reflection. Robert said the time he spends in the calmly lit periwinkle room is always relaxing. What he loves most about the mindfulness room? “The bean bags are… they’re very fun to sit, relax… think… it helps you,” he said. 

 Phillip Asaro, Robert’s teacher, has been using the mindfulness room at least twice a week since September, “You can really see that difference and how they’re really able to calm down and be more reflective about their behavior and things like that so  it’s really a positive that I’ve been able to see so far  with the students.”

Asaro meditates along-side his students. He said it’s the only way the kids will buy into the program, but advocates say students who need help the most aren’t getting it. Dawn Yuster, School Justice Director for Advocates for Children of New York, said too few schools are equipped to handle kids in emotional distress.

“I think that’s the common theme we’re seeing is that schools that don’t have school staff without that don’t have the appropriate training, support resources and coaching to implement de-escalation techniques,” Yuster said.

Yuster shared an incident involving a 15-year-old who was triggered after her classmate threw food at her in the middle of the lunch room. She said administrators called police even though they knew the student had mental health challenges,“School safety agents and police ended up restraining her, hand cuffing her in a violent manner, and she ended up having an asthma attack," she said. "Then even after she was handcuffed, an NYPD officer shot her with a tazer gun, and after this we immediately helped her transfer out of the school.”

The 100 Schools Project aims to address the issues Yuster pointed out. The project sends mental health professionals into schools to coach staff on how to address students’ needs. Dr. Marilyn Jacob,Senior Director of the 100 Schools Project, said the goal is to help teachers recognize the early signs and symptoms of a mental health disorder. 

“If teachers know the signs and symptoms that they’re looking for in students before the police are called in, kids end up in the hospital," Dr. Jacob said. "They end up thrown out of school or they don’t show up.”

Dr. Jacob said behavioral issues in school are often the result of trauma. Scott Bloom, Director of School Mental Health with the Department of Education, agreed. 

Bloom said kids deal with all kinds of trauma, “It could be newly arrived immigrants, it could be domestic violence, it could be from the community, and I think often trauma affects our students psychologically. You  can’t see trauma like you can when somebody’s abused." 

The DOE currently works with over one hundred organizations to provide mental health services in schools.

Northside Center is another program that works with the DOE. The Center has set up mental health clinics in 11 public schools, including PS 161 in Harlem.

Mariana Usef, an in-school clinician,  said she meets with about 5 kids a day for 45 minutes at a time. Usef often uses board games to help kids decompress, “A game like the ‘Talking, Feeling and Doing’ game, where I engage them in a fun activity," she said. "The questions are focused on encouraging expression of feelings and attaching feelings to thoughts and actions.”

The DOE’s Scott Bloom said there is no cookie cutter approach when it comes to addressing mental health issues in schools.  But, Dawn Yuster with Advocates for Children said she would still like to see a more robust and uniform effort.

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