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Mental health curriculum in Harford high schools lauded by student representative to school board

The Aegis - 2/27/2020

Feb. 27--Christian Walker, the student representative to the Harford County Board of Education, is in his senior year at C. Milton Wright High School in Bel Air, but he finds himself in a freshman-level health class as he must complete his health credit due to his transfer from another Harford high school during his freshman year.

Walker and his classmates are working on the mental health unit now, a unit he described during the school board meeting Monday as "everything that I would want to see in a curriculum and in a mental health unit of study."

He noted how much the HCPS mental health curriculum has changed from his freshman year, when the unit was "at best, very lackluster."

"It did not, I think, address many of the things that need to be addressed in a modern curriculum for mental health," said Walker, who worked with other students to advocate for improved mental health services, prior to joining the school board this year.

He brought his class notes to the meeting Monday evening and read some of the positive attributes of the unit, such as instruction on causes of depression in high school students, risk factors for mental health issues, strategies to prevent suicide, how students can recognize signs of suicide risk among their peers, plus how students can overcome "stumbling blocks" and seek help.

"Serious disorders, compulsions and addictions are complex and require professional intervention," Walker said, reading from his notes. "Sharing your thoughts with an objective, helpful individual can be [a] great relief."

He stressed that "these are all messages that students need to be hearing in their classrooms from their teachers, and it's fantastic."

Walker suggested two areas where the curriculum for the unit can be improved. The first would be expanding space for class discussion and emphasizing to teachers "how important it is to be able to discuss [mental health] openly, for students to feel comfortable asking questions, which is the biggest thing."

He also lauded how lists of people students can go to for help, such as school counselors and psychologists, teachers and administrators, have been provided to students.

Walker suggested that officials also provide lists of who students can reach out to in their specific schools and a packet with the county's mental health crisis hotline -- 1-800-NEXT-STEP (1-800-639-8783) -- and other community resources.

"I think that that would be a great addition to what, I think, is already a curriculum that is serving its purpose and really, it's just a matter of implementation and building upon what we're doing," Walker said.

Progress made, more work ahead

The student representative said, in a follow-up email Tuesday, that there has been "promising change," but much work still needs to be done.

He described the mental health instruction of his freshman year as "quite generic-- and certainly out of touch with what students need to know about how to identify friends who are struggling and how to get them help."

"Now what I am seeing in our schools is small steps," he wrote. "Small but very positive ... toward making students more comfortable sharing their feeling and struggles, and normalizing seeking help when they need it."

Walker noted that improving student mental health services has been a priority for HCPS Superintendent Sean Bulson. The superintendent is seeking additional funding in his proposed fiscal 2021 operating budget to restore or add positions for school counselors and mental health professionals.

He has observed how "more people across the school district are discussing mental health and how to improve the mental health of students in their schools."

"Students are discussing it more widely, teachers are attending voluntary trainings, and principals are becoming increasingly cognizant of how it impacts their students every day," Walker added. "I certainly believe the advocacy of our student leaders over these last several years has spurred this progress, and I am so happy to see how in just a few years the discussion surrounding mental health has become more robust."

Walker stressed that more work needs to be done, though, and he said there are still students who struggle with the stigma of talking about their mental health issues, or they do not know to seek help if they or a peer are experiencing a crisis. He said he has "full confidence" in HCPS' student services team and other school system leaders as progress continues, though.

"It is crucial that we continue to expand education of students and staff, because I firmly believe education is the path to understanding and support," Walker stated.


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