State Representative Jeffrey Roy had an observation for the people at his table as they waited for the call to order at this Conference.
“When I tried to find a parking space in the lot,” he said, “I knew that something special was going on.”
He was right. There was indeed something special going on – a meeting of nearly three hundred educators from across the Commonwealth to discuss depression and its too-frequent outcome, suicide among young people.
This significant event was the product of months of careful planning, the successful search for the best possible specialists in the fields of psychology and psychiatry, and the thorough promotional job that brought the meeting to the attention of professionals working in our schools and wraparound agencies. Representative Roy was on hand to present a proclamation appropriate for the occasion and to manifest his support for the purpose of the conference. It was entirely proper that he should be introduced by MSSAA President Dana Brown, Principal of Malden High School, whose proactive interest and deep concern for the mental health problems of our students has been a major focus of the Association’s activities this academic year.
President Brown concluded his opening remarks by introducing Dr. Larry Berkowitz, Director and Co-Founder of the Riverside Trauma Center, and Clinical Instructor of Psychology at Harvard Medical School. Dr. Berkowitz proved to be an interesting and fluent speaker who managed to get an incredible amount of summary knowledge into his half hour keynote address. He brought out many factors that are contributors to depression, and described their impact in graphic language that conveyed the sense of hopelessness and despair that often leads to tragedy. Particularly disturbing was the fact that suicide is the leading cause of death among adolescents, with thousands of suicides occurring each year. As Dr. Berkowitz spoke, the triple ballroom was hushed, and except for whispered comments among the listeners, the audience was silent, giving rapt attention to his words, and, in many cases taking notes on the things they were hearing. Dr. Berkowitz showed and commented on a slide that showed the possible causal factors for depression and suicide that clearly demonstrated the complexity of the task of suicide prevention. When Dr. Berkowitz finished, the conference attendees had gained a mindset that would enliven and validate the breakout sessions throughout the day. The quiet that generally prevailed mirrored the nature of the subjects under discussion.
The first set of concurrent breakout sessions offered six locations. Meghan Diamon presented ideas on recognizing warning signs of depression and possible suicide in schools and in school based activities. She also featured methods of alerting the student body to these indications and get students to understand that students observing suggestive behavior should report what they have seen. Jessica Minehan worked with a large group to help them understand the frequency and nature of anxiety disorder and oppositional behavior patterns. She noted that over 25% of 13 year old students have had anxiety problems by that age. She stressed several strategies to counter these problems.
Dr. Nadja Reilly stressed community approaches to mental health issues, working with a group of students from Dover-Sherborn and Wellesley High Schools. The importance of recognizing and dealing with the sense of stigma associated with any form of mental illness in our society was an important consideration here. This session was active and there was great interest shown in the subject matter.
In other workshops during this time period, Jeff Levin discussed the negative effect upon staff members of the stress engendered in dealing with mentally troubled pupils, and suggested ways to alleviate the problem, while Benson Monroe led a group on eating disorders.
The final group in this period found Dr. Berkowitz dealing with the problem of how to handle the aftermath of tragedy in a school community. He stressed the roles that various officials and educators could play in providing support to those in need of it. He reminded the group that, while the death of a young person is always difficult to face, when the death is by suicide, the impact becomes much greater.
As the attendees went on to the next sessions, there was a notably small amount of small talk, and a lot of discussion about what the people present had just heard and learned. There was also an obvious desire to get to the next session on time – there were very few people late. The large gathering was transforming into an effective single-focus force.
The second group of breakout sessions continued the unbroken string of forceful and to-the-point presentations. In one of them, Steve Boczenowski of TADS recounted the tragic story of the loss of his own son, Jeffrey, to suicide half a decade ago. Although his presentation was always calm and reasoned, the pain that had come into his life was recognizable. Given that most educators are, by their nature empathetic, many reacted with their own feelings of sadness. The attention in this room was absolute.
A session in the ballroom presented by Kyle Megrath of PFLAG went into useful detail about methods that are effective in dealing with transgendered youths. The session brought up some issues that schools often face in connection with the use of bathrooms, locker rooms, and classroom strategies. Mr. Megrath pointed out the fact that many people have difficulty in understanding the needs of these young people, and was very helpful, in pointing out the path to engaging them.
Lauren Gablinske went into methods of suicide prevention, stressing the procedures used on the befriending process. This session was noteworthy for the number of handout materials that were distributed and the excellence of the Power Point presentation. The session also featured contact information for further advice on methodology that is useful in saving young people who are suffering from depression or presenting other signs of suicidal thoughts or tendencies.
Joanna Bridger of Riverside Trauma Center led a group discussing the problem of post-event trauma. Ms. Bridger went into the nature of trauma, the tactics to be used if one is coaching a person who has survived trauma personally or has been affected by a traumatic event that involves another person. Focusing on coaching situations, the nature of trauma care and trauma-informed treatment was made clear. A clear idea of how the two concepts relate for someone making an effort to deal with and give support to a traumatized person was also presented. The session, like the others on this day, was notable for its factual and procedural focus, and for the useful information that was made available to those in attendance.
Dr. Vanessa Prosper and Molly Jordan of Boston Children’s Hospital outlined their classroom-based prevention curriculum for high school students. This curriculum is designed to raise awareness about adolescent depression in the school climate. Details about the program were presented, and a documentary film was shown. This presentation demonstrated how an awareness program that might be crucial on saving lives could be an integral part of the school program.
The remaining session prior to the lunch break was an interesting presentation on the use of meditation in the treatment of trauma and the lessening or prevention of depression. Presenter Helen Rainoff of Getting Centered Meditation was able to recount some instances in which the technique has resulted in improved physical and mental health for business executives, health care professionals and many people in the field of education. She noted that even a relatively light schedule of meditation sessions can bring about marked results. Ms. Rainoff also described several techniques for meditation to the group, and emphasized the simplicity of the practice and its adaptability to almost any available time period.
Following a buffet lunch, the final event of the day was a panel moderated by Dr. John D’Auria, former Superintendent of Canton, Massachusetts Public Schools, who is currently serving as President of Teachers21.The panel members included Dr. Reilly, Bill Chapin, Assistant Principal of King Philip Regional High School, who is also a Licensed Social Worker with a Master’s Degree in that field, Mr. Boczenowski and two very remarkable students
Kyrah Altman, a senior at Leominster High School is also Director of LEAD (Let’s Empower, Advocate and Do). Nathan Chiu is a junior at Wellesley High School, where he serves as a delegate to the State Student Advisory Commission, where he has advocated for attention to matters of mental health.
In beginning the session, Dr. D’Auria asked each member to make a statement about what they considered most important in improving the present situation in the area of student mental health.
Dr. Reilly spoke first, and stressed the importance of getting parents involved in any activity that is undertaken. Mr. Chapin spoke of the need for educators to transmit the knowledge of mental health problems that they possess to parents, many of whom have never encountered a mental health problem before. Kyrah made a convincing argument that fostering a feeling of belonging in the mind of every student was a major key to being able to assist if stress or some incident affected one of them. She also noted that many schools have done a good deal in this area, and that students now wanted to talk about such things. She hoped that facilitators could be found among teachers and others affected by mental illness situations to open more discussion in the future.
As the discussion went on, suggestions were made that raising awareness on the subject, removing obstacles to progress, and getting the money necessary to have an impact all constituted needed steps.
Kyrah mentioned that the cultural stigma attached to any form of mental illness was also a major factor in preventing students from asking for help. The more it is talked about, she said, the more people will come to accept it as a blameless fact of life. There was also general agreement on the panel that money and stigma were the barriers that were most often encountered at the operational level. The use of faculty in-service time was advocated, since classroom teachers and coaches see more of the students than anyone else, and are in a good position to notice behavioral, academic or attitudinal changes.
The time allotted for the panel went by quickly, and there was widespread note-taking to be seen. The performance of the two students was particularly striking, with the maturity and sophistication that they displayed evoking admiration from many of the listeners and presenters.
In summarizing this conference, three factors will echo in the minds of those present. The punctuality of attendance at sessions and the lack of off-subject conversation was at a level that your editor has not often seen. The quality of the presenters and the convincing cases they made for what they advocated was also at a very high level.
The selection of speakers, time allotments and locations selected for the various events were well planned, and the estimating of probable attendance, always difficult, proved to be excellent. MIAA’s Ms. Karen Nardone, an administrator of long experience in planning events, is to be commended for the outstanding administrative job that contributed so much to the effectiveness of the conference.
It is to be hoped now that the attendees will carry what they have heard back to their schools and districts, and that protocols dealing with the area of depression and other forms of mental illness will be adopted in those places.