Mental health professionals on campus aid students

May 1 kicked off Mental Health Awareness Month. The Falconer spoke to mental health professionals on campus to learn more about resources available to students.

As Mental Health Awareness Month progresses, TPHS students and staff recognize the importance of acknowledging mental health needs as they escalate among high school students nationwide.

According to TPHS school psychologist, Dr. Debra Lawler, whose chief function on campus is “to identify and service students that have special education needs,” mental health needs on campus are at a high all year.

“We assess schoolwide when there are crises, threats or student suicidal needs; we come to the aid of the school as well,” Lawler said.

Debra Lawler Psychologist (photo by Hope Dennis/Falconer)

A 2022 National Healthcare Quality and Disparities report revealed that “nearly 20% of children and young people ages three to 17 in the U.S. have a mental, emotional, developmental or behavioral disorder, and suicidal behaviors among high school students increased more than 40% in [comparison] to the decade before 2019.”

Meghan Galli, a student support facilitator found at the counseling office, sees the COVID-19 pandemic as having a significant effect on students’ mental health today. 

“A major trend I’ve seen over the years is that COVID-19 really affected kids and their social skills — anxiety is up a lot,” Galli said. 

Meghan Galli Student Support Facilitator (photo by Anna Opalsky/Falconer)

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2021, “44% of high school students reported feeling sad or hopeless within the previous year, and 37% reported poor mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Galli prioritizes listening and talking one-on-one with the kids over paperwork.  Making sure kids feel as though there’s a safe space on campus to come talk and feel comfortable is her priority.

TPHS school social worker Kylea Sheils credits both the lack of in-person human connection during the COVID-19 lockdown and the transition back to campus as a reason for an increase in depression and social anxiety for students. To assist struggling students, Sheils runs student support groups.

“First semester, I ran self-esteem groups, and this semester I have been running grief groups on campus. It has helped students feel less alone, and I have learned so much,” Sheils said.

Sheils handles various categories of student issues: social emotional health, concerning attendance rates relating to familial income, homeless youth and substance use. 

“Students can be referred by their counselors when they need a higher level of support or students can self-report to a social worker,” Sheils said.

Kylea Sheils Social Worker (photo by Hope Dennis/Falconer)

Initiatives to spread awareness of support services and understanding have increased proportionally to the rising demand for mental health aid.

“We’ve done a lot better. This is my 24th year at TPHS. We certainly have a lot more awareness in mental health; we are staffed higher, and there’s definitely been a trend in providing mental health awareness,” Lawler said. 

In 2016, the California Assembly Bill 2246 passed, mandating local education agencies of seventh to twelfth graders to adopt a policy on pupil suicide prevention. 

With the passage of the law, every staff member at TPHS is now trained and aware of how to support students in crisis, according to Lawler. 

Despite such improvements, students are discouraged by the long process to get ahold of the staff members meant to assist them. For this reason, Emilia Biebel (10), a TPHS PALs member, believes there may need to be a shift in TPHS support systems.

“I think our counselors do the absolute best they can, but the reality is that they are spread extremely thin due to the sheer number of students they are each assigned,” Biebel said. “A resource I don’t think a lot of students are aware of is the ability to request a member of PALs in addition to a counselor.”

Lawler agrees on the lack of awareness of the support services at TPHS.

“Most people don’t know we exist,” Lawler said.

To get in touch with these faculty members, students would typically go through the counseling office, and then be appropriately directed to a mental health professional.

Several students have taken action to attempt to remedy the increasing severity of mental health issues on campus. Julia Kaplan (12), founder of the TPHS Mental Health Club, hosts weekly lunch meetings to educate and assist students. 

“Students can prioritize their mental health by surrounding themselves with the right people, exercising, and seeking help,” Kaplan said. “I find it amazing that some people think it’s weird to ask for help when it’s not, it is one of the most important things.”

While mental health awareness is a complex topic, there seems to be an understanding that there is always more that can be done on the TPHS campus.

“Teenagers experience the highest amount of mental health issues, so the more support we can have for everyone during these formative years the better,” Biebel said. “Simply checking in on your loved ones can make a world of a difference in their lives.” 

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