DOWNINGTOWN – Chester County school principals raised concerns about the increased demand for student mental health services with state and county elected officials during a special briefing held this week at the Chester County Intermediate Unit.
Hosted by Pennsylvania State Representative Christina Sappey and CCIU Executive Director Dr. George Fiore, the meeting was the culmination of work done by a small group formed early last summer to respond to youth mental health and suicide prevention needs in Chester County. This small task force was made up of county officials, superintendents and school and CCIU staff. They took stock of current programs and resources and identified service gaps.
The purpose of this larger meeting was to bring county and state officials together to hear directly from the superintendents. The presentation made by the principals gave an overview of the current situation and a plan to significantly improve services and meet the needs of students.
“We all share the public’s urgent concern for the mental health and safety of our children, and how this is impacting our schools,” Sappey said. “Accurately addressing the behavioral health needs of our students is critical to saving lives. Today we received a roadmap and I hope that with bipartisan support we can overcome these challenges.
Providing opening remarks, George F. Fiore, executive director of the Chester County Intermediate Unit, agreed with Sappey, and stressed that schools are not looking for funding, but rather for solutions and partnerships. term with community and mental health professionals, and state and county officials.
“What you will hear today is a glimpse of the problem we face in our schools,” said Fiore, “The stress it places on our students and school staff, the way we provide services to students now, and an overview of the continuum of care our students need and deserve.
Fiore then introduced District Superintendents of Unionville Chadds Ford, West Chester Area, Avon Grove, Downingtown Area and Phoenixville Area. Each of the speakers described significant challenges their schools face in providing mental health services to students and proposed solutions, including addressing the shortage of mental health professionals, integrating crisis counselors into schools, open crisis care centers and strengthen community partnerships.
“These are issues that have taken years to develop,” Fiore said, and “it’s going to take resources and commitment, but we owe it to our students to work together and do what needs to be done to this generation of students and for the next.”
Unionville Chadds Ford School District Superintendent John Sanville spoke first about the critical shortage of mental health professionals. Dr. Sanville referenced a report co-sponsored by Rep. Kristine Howard in 2020 that studied the shortage of mental health professionals. The report, Pennsylvania Mental Health Care Workforce Shortage: Challenges and Solutions, commissioned by the General Assembly in 2020, provided recommendations to alleviate the situation.
According to Sanville, Pennsylvania has 422 child psychiatrists for its 2.7 million children and youth. Among the recommendations, Dr. Sanville called for implementing the findings of the 2020 report, in addition to considering loan forgiveness programs and scholarships for students enrolled in professional mental health programs.
“I am proud to have been a co-sponsor of HR193, which led the Joint State Government Commission to conduct a study identifying many areas where access to mental health care could be improved in our Commonwealth,” said Rep. Kristine Howard. “Since then, I have sought to address some of these care gaps with two new bills that would create programs to ensure adequate staffing for behavioral health facilities and expand the pool of clinical social workers. who can provide therapeutic services on an outpatient basis, HB2091 and HB1926. I intend to continue working to ensure that all Pennsylvanians have access to the care they need.
Sanville was followed by Mr. Christopher Marchese of the Avon Grove School District and Robert Sokolowski of the West Chester Area School District, who provided lawmakers with data showing the increase in the number of suicide risk assessments and the risk of youth violence. Superintendents also provided information on the growing number of referrals to schools from the Safe2Say tip line, which requires every school to respond to student safety tips, regardless of time of day or night. where they are received.
“We (school staff) often get this advice at 4 a.m.,” Sokolowski said, “and then contact the agencies for help.”
As a result, Dr. Marchese of the Avon Grove School District proposed a system in which county-employed crisis counselors were assigned to school districts to assist students in mental health crisis.
“It is essential that we continue to prioritize mental health both as a public health issue and as a holistic approach to the upbringing, development and general well-being of children, adolescents and young people. “said Senator Carolyn Comitta. “While the pandemic has highlighted the mental health impacts on our students, we also need to consider the role of related factors, such as exposure to social media, bullying, isolation and substance abuse. I thank Rep. Sappey and the CCIU for helping move this important discussion forward and for continuing to work to support investments in mental health services and legislation, such as my Senate Bill 791, to increase the access to counsellors, psychologists, social workers and nurses in our schools. .”
Dr. Emilie Lonardi shared that with only one inpatient hospital to serve the entire county, they regularly send students out of the county. Students wait in emergency rooms for days waiting for beds at an inpatient mental health care center and then flow out of the county.
Lonardi proposed that the now closed Jennersville and Brandywine hospitals be turned into crisis care centers offering a full level of continuing care.
State Rep. Danielle Friel Otten said, “It’s important for us to be honest about what’s going on with our children and the pressures and expectations that we, as a society, place on them.” , Otten said. “Even before the pandemic, our children were crushed under the pressure of social media, tests and school performance, and overworked to the point that they had no time in their day to just be kids. For those of us who still remember a world without Facebook, Instagram or smartphones, these are challenges that did not exist in our youth. Our schools, which are as essential to the lives of our children as the family unit, need our help to create systems that support our youngest citizens so that our children can thrive. As a lawmaker and mother of two elementary-aged children, there’s nothing more important right now.
The legislative briefing was attended by almost the entire county legislative delegation, the three county commissioners and the 12 Chester County superintendents.