Surgeon General's warning of youth mental health crisis rings true in Hudson Valley

“They don’t realize the trauma that they put our kids through by making them do this. You’re teaching these kids to fear everything.” - a father talking about COVID protocols.

Gary Stern Katelyn Cordero Helu Wang
Rockland/Westchester Journal News
  • In a 2019 study, more than a third of high schoolers experienced sadness or hopelessness

James Rizza of Wallkill saw the pandemic take a toll on his teenage son.

His son had struggled with anxiety for years, but quarantine and isolation pushed him to a breaking point. He was hospitalized and medicated.

“It’s miserable," Rizza said. "I cry every day because there is nothing I can do, and I worry about the fact that he is not going to be able to handle the real world once he gets out in it."

He hopes government officials will lift COVID protocols, including masking and social distancing, which looks unlikely as case numbers rise.

Poughkeepsie High School principal Kelleyann Royce-Giron gives senior Harrison Brisbon-McKinnon a hug after he shared his experiences from the current school year on December 3, 2021.

“They don’t realize the trauma that they put our kids through by making them do this," Rizza said. "You’re teaching these kids to fear everything.” 

Through the Hudson Valley, there are stark signs of what U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy just called a growing mental health crisis facing America's youth.

"The challenges today’s generation of young people face are unprecedented and uniquely hard to navigate," he wrote in a 53- page advisory released Tuesday. "And the effect these challenges have had on their mental health is devastating."

He cited national findings from 2019: More than a third of high school students said they had experienced persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness, a 40% increase since 2009; and 1 in 6 students said they thought about suicide, a 44% increase since 2009.

Parents, educators, clinicians and others across the region say they are still coming to terms with how the pandemic has intensified a mental health emergency that was underway for years before the arrival of COVID-19.

They're seeing rising incidents of depression and anxiety among students and even parents, more behavior problems in classrooms, and acting out on social media.

Harrison Brisbon-McKinnon, a senior at Poughkeepsie High School, said that after 18 months of hybrid and remote learning, many of his peers struggled to cope without supports.

"We had to learn to find our own coping mechanism, many of them being unhealthy," he said. "And now that we finally have a world to release all of that into, we are slowly getting these supports back, but we don't know how to release all of that anger in a mature environment."

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Last month, there was a shooting outside Poughkeepsie High. No one was injured and a 13-year-old was charged.

Principal Kelleyann Royce-Giron said the school did a "reset" over several half-days to process much more than the shooting incident.

“It was so much bigger than that," she said. "It’s the emotion, it's coming back from 18 months of pandemic… My upperclassmen have come back with the sense of what it’s like to be in high school. My underclassmen came in still in some middle-school mindset and holding on to stuff and angst and issues from sixth and seventh grade.”

Problems were already there

For several years before the pandemic, educators across New York State repeatedly identified worsening anxiety and depression among students as their toughest challenge.

Many blamed the prominence of social media for opening new avenues of bullying, giving kids unrealistic social expectations and increasing the isolation of teens who rarely lifted their eyes from their phones.

Murthy's report zeroes in on social media — as well as culprits like academic pressures, limited access to mental health care, drugs and alcohol, and "broader stressors" like the 2008 financial crisis, rising income inequality, racism, gun violence, and climate change.

These concerns drove schools in recent year to incorporate social and emotional learning at every level of instruction.

Now the pandemic has exacerbated the earlier concerns in ways that are still playing out. And with COVID case numbers rising as 2022 nears, there is no relief in sight.

Poughkeepsie High School seniors from left, Elijah Johnson, Harrison Brisbon-McKinnon and Kerena Rattray share their experiences from the current school year on December 3, 2021.

"During the isolation of the pandemic, many young people saw a decrease in interpersonal relationships. And there was increased use of social media," said Jenna Vomero, a social worker with Rockland BOCES. "We're seeing more parents referring their kids for help. We're also seeing more parents in need of support."

Vomero is assigned to the Partnership for Safe and Healthy Youth, a coalition formed by Rockland County agencies and school districts in 2014 to coordinate behavioral care for children and teens who are struggling.

Vomero said that schools knew the transition back to school five days a week in September would be difficult.

"We are trying to identify young people who are struggling more than others so we can support them and their families," she said.

That's a common goal as the school year nears its halfway point. 

On Thursday, new state Health Commissioner Dr. Mary Bassett acknowledged that the pandemic has had a huge effect on students' mental health. She said she will be talking to Education Commissioner Betty Rosa about what they can do.

"Mental health is just as important as physical health," Bassett said.

Among Murthy's recommendations in his advisory was this: "Ensure that every child has access to high-quality, affordable, and culturally competent mental health care."

But those who deal with youth say there are not enough services to help the kids in need, even though far more is being done than a decade ago.

Processing grief and loss

Many children and teens who dealt with loss and grief last year are still trying to figure out how to cope, said Kimberly Mauricio, assistant superintendent of student services for the Ossining school district. 

Some children were less equipped than adults to return to regular routines, like school, once quarantine restrictions eased, she said. 

"Children are feeling a lot of things, the loss and grief, the loss of jobs, anxiety, and depression," Mauricio said. "Many transitioned back easily, while some needed greater supports." 

Ossining is one of a half dozen districts in Westchester that have clinicians from ANDRUS, a Yonkers-based nonprofit, providing counseling to students in schools.

Ossining High School.

In addition, the Ossining and Peekskill districts just received $80,000 grants from the Westchester Community Foundation to hire specialists who will for one year screen the mental health needs of new students and their families. Both districts have seen an unexpected increase in new families in need of social and emotional supports.

Ossining is also about to survey all district families to ask whether mental health issues are negatively affecting their children's academics and well being.

"We're trying to stay in touch with what our families needs," Mauricio said. "This year, many aspects keep evolving and changing, and schools have to keep their finger on the pulse of what is happening. We also have to support our staff who are often carrying a heavy load addressing the academic and social-emotional needs of our students.    

No end in sight

The ongoing nature of the pandemic makes it more difficult for all, especially youth, to recover.

With COVID case spiking since Thanksgiving, Gov. Kathy Hochul on Friday required that masks be worn in all indoor public places in New York that do not have a vaccine requirement for entry.

Children who have experienced loss — the death of a love one or perhaps a parent's loss of a job — are reminded of that loss daily as the pandemic continues, said Heath Bloch, president and chief executive officer of ANDRUS. 

"A child in normal times struggles when going through a bereavement or other trauma, like losing a home, or suffering a financial hardship, " he said.

With the pandemic, it's exacerbated because there is a fear of physical contact which leads to a child missing the comfort that comes from a hug or touch.

“There is tremendous sadness and loss that has led some children to self-harm, suicidality, a lot more crisis," Bloch said.

In addition to Ossining, ANDRUS provides direct mental health treatment and services to students in White Plains, Yonkers, Lakeland, and Peekskill. 

But agencies can't keep up with the growing needs of schools and families for mental health services because there isn't enough government support to staff additional programs. Many school districts received large federal stimulus grants, with many using some of the cash for mental health services, but agencies that deliver outpatient services got significantly less.

"The loss and bereavement in Westchester is profound, especially in our most diverse cities, like Yonkers," Bloch said. "The demand for services is great. Meanwhile mental health providers are themselves suffering loss and trauma from the pandemic, losing loved ones and sharing in the lost connections we have all experienced. And government support has been insufficient to meet the needs."

Eric Byrne, president of the Lower Hudson Council of School Superintendents, said that schools can't address students' mental health issues alone, but need the long-term cooperation of communities, government agencies and families.

"The impact on kids is frightening," he said. "You see things happening with social media that are disturbing. There are more signs that kids need help and some families need help. Schools can't solve this alone."

Gary Stern is an editor/writer covering K-12 education in the Hudson Valley. Reach him at gstern@lohud.com. Twitter: @garysternNY. Click here for his latest.