Narragansett launches state’s first teleheath program for students

NARRAGANSETT, R.I. — Some middle school and high school students could associate with a student named Paul’s obsessions with relationships with friends or activity partners in school programs. They also might see in themselves unexplained and unusual outbursts of anger.

As anxiety fills him, his legs, stomach and shoulders get tight. A good night’s sleep is tough to come by. He even has occasional panic attacks. He generally feels tired and irritable. These are symptoms that his parents see, too.

This young man may need some mental health counseling to uncover what’s happening, but appointments even for consultation are booked weeks in advance. Others are available at times that conflict with his school schedule of after-school activities.

These days some help is on the way, at least in the Narragansett School System, for online counseling — referred often to behavioral telehealth — during the school day in a private room and done through a secure internet hook-up with a counselor or psychologist.

“Narragansett is the first district in RI to pilot this effort. If successful, we hope to expand the effort to other districts in Washington County and throughout RI,” explained Susan A. Orban, a social worker and coordinator at the Washington County Coalition for Children.

It comes as this approach is used by school and health officials for solutions to rising numbers of mental health issues among students.

In a federal Centers for Disease Control survey of high school students nationwide, nearly 40% in 2021 reported experiencing mental health challenges during the coronavirus outbreak.

High school students who are gay, lesbian or bisexual, as well as girls, were especially likely to say their mental health has suffered during the pandemic. The numbers broken down were 49% girls, 24% boys and in sexual identification categories it was 30% straight, 64% lesbian, gay and bisexual and 62% other or questioning.

Pandemic-related disruptions to schooling, socializing and family life have created a situation that the U.S. surgeon general has described as a “youth mental health crisis,” with high rates of teens experiencing distress. But public health experts had called attention to teen mental health even before the coronavirus outbreak.

For instance, a separate CDC survey conducted in 2015 found that LGB teens were at greater risk of depression than their heterosexual peers. And a Pew Research Center analysis of pre-pandemic data from the National Survey for Drug Use and Health showed teenage girls were more likely than their male peers to report recent experiences with depression, as well as to receive treatment for it.

Statewide pediatric medical professionals also have declared a “state of emergency” for child and adolescent mental health concerns, and local schools are pointing out they have focused increased attention on the matter.

School officials in Narragansett, South Kingstown and North Kingstown all report they have various monitoring systems for reporting students who show or experience mental health issues that need to be addressed.

“Like most school districts across the country, South Kingstown is seeing an increase in the mental health needs of our students,” said Charity Shea, director of pupil personnel services for South Kingstown Schools.  

“We are seeing students who have lost out on opportunities to learn how to be a learner, how to interact with peers, and how to respond when faced with challenges,” she said.

North Kingstown’s interim superintendent, Michael Waterman, pointed out that his district, too, is seeing more students diagnosed with depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, suicidal ideations, and eating disorders.

In Narragansett, Joanne Blessing, a faculty leader of the high school student group, said, “Certainly our school is also experiencing this uptick in behaviors, stress and social anxiety. “

This innovative new step in Narragansett could become a model for other schools. It increases the focus from just being about awareness and takes it into dedicated therapeutic counseling.

One study this past February in the Journal of School Health reported on the collection of data during the fall 2019 and spring 2020 semesters on all students receiving behavioral telehealth services from 15 school-based…

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