The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, May 30, 2008

CCHS supports teens facing emotional difficulties

What is being done to sustain the emotional health of students at the high school? Jessica Murphy, Director of Special Education for the Concord-Carlisle School District, says the recent spikes in special education (SPED) costs at the Concord-Carlisle High School (CCHS) are the result of an unusual number of students with severe emotional issues this year. The increase may be the result of natural statistical variation and does not necessarily reflect a long-term trend. However, with more students experiencing mood disorders, the school is taking steps to identify emotionally fragile students and provide even healthy students with added support.

This year, “We had pretty much every disability, including significant emotional impairment and mental illness,” says Murphy. Some of the diagnoses were schizophrenia, bi-polar, eating disorders, and “students who were suicidal or homicidal, with extreme emotional disability.” Eleven additional students received out of district (OOD) services, bringing the total to 45. These included many who required a therapeutic setting, with extensive controls, small classrooms, and a nurturing environment. “Safety is the issue,” says Murphy noting that students with these severe problems could be dangerous to themselves or others.

While these were extreme cases, CCHS Adjustment Counselor Kelli Kirshtein says she deals frequently with students in distress. Mostly she sees “anxiety and depression, and stress in general,” along with “the gamut, OCD [obsessive-compulsive disorder], ADD, attention-deficit disorder] . . .” She adds, “Most students here are very healthy and do very well,” but the challenge is to support those who are struggling before they fall into crisis.

Mood disorders rising nationally

Does an increase in emotional issues at CCHS represent a trend? “Truthfully, I don’t know,” says Murphy, noting that nationally, mood disorders affecting teens are on the rise. The reasons are the source of much study but few conclusions. Some percentage arises from awareness, “We know more about how people are wired” and challenges that would not have been recognized as disabilities are now viewed differently. Other reasons include changing family, social, and academic pressure.

Handling anxiety and stress

Kirshtein says clinical researchers have identified an inheritable factor in many anxiety disorders. One theory for an increase in teen disorders is earlier puberty and maturity, which may cause the condition to manifest earlier. Another theory is that many people have a propensity to anxiety that is manageable until the stress is ratcheted up. “The pace of life these days is so frantic,” she says, noting that social and economic factors also affect students. “I think it’s American life” that is the source of many disorders.

As for the school itself, Kirshstein says there is academic pressure “but most students are not terribly burdened.” In her 17 years at the school she has seen it become “a little harder than it used to be” but believes the main difference is “social factors – the pace, a weaker economy, family stress.” She also believes families are more likely to seek outside counseling and some therapists “become real advocates” for their clients, bringing more students to the attention of school services.

Murphy sees a CCHS community that is “extremely bright, college-bound, and very very competitive.” Parents are “highly educated, business-oriented, and quite bright.” She adds, “It’s easy for a student to feel inadequate and not up to their peers.” On the positive side, “There is a very supportive atmosphere” at the school. Parents tend to be pro-active in getting help, and often students come to the attention of the department after receiving outside counseling.

Becoming more proactive

Murphy adds that this year “we are becoming much more proactive” in identifying at-risk students before they descend into severe illness. She points to the Alternative Program, which offers support for students experiencing more complex problems, such as anxiety and emotional issues, and for those who have been hospitalized. In addition, clinical training of guidance counselors, social workers, and school psychologists is being undertaken to raise awareness of emerging issues and research. Social workers, guidance, and psychologists meet frequently to discuss student needs and “catch and support” those who may be falling.

One of the difficulties for CCHS is that state agencies which used to help with funding no longer have the resources, and the federal government has never come close to fully funding its mandates. Murphy notes, “The way the law is written, any disability that impedes a student’s ability to access the curriculum is the responsibility of the school,” and that includes emotional issues. She says school departments have worked hard this year to do more with existing staff.

Kirshstein also points to the team approach, which she says has greatly improved communication, “It really works.” She notes there are many levels of service for students, including the Challenge Program, which sets aside one block per day for student support. This year the school is experimenting with a transition program called “the network,” for students who are in regular education “but need a leg up. There are a lot of kids who could use that.” It follows a model more like a middle school, where students have classes with a group, providing a chance to “make the big school smaller.” She adds that the program is not for everyone, “some really like the big school.”

No new out-of-district placements this year

Murphy notes with pride that there have not been any new OOD placements this year. “We are on the same page, and have tightened services to better provide for students in the school. We hope to preempt problems before a placement is needed.”

Kirshstein says the counseling and special education personnel are focused on keeping kids at the school. “We are always working on developing services. Kids and families are happier if the kid is home.” She notes at every level, from Murphy to the secretaries, “how hard people work for the students. They make a wonderful place better.”

“We work collaboratively,” says Murphy. “We don’t want students to have to go away. We want to keep them here.” ∆

© 2008 The Carlisle Mosquito