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Merrimack sees rising trends in mental health issues among high school students

By Grace Pecci - Staff Writer | Nov 8, 2019

MERRIMACK – School officials are seeing increasing trends of anxiety, depression and other mental health issues, as shown in data provided by Merrimack High School’s 504 Coordinator Christina Connor.

Currently at the school, 179 students are on 504 Plans, which is a formal plan that establishes support for students with disabilities.

A 504 Plan differs from an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) in the sense that an IEP is for a child who has at least one of the 13 disabilities that fall under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act , such as autism, impairments with speech, visuals or hearing, etc. and the disability must affect the child’s ability to learn general education.

A 504 covers a more broad spectrum of disabilities that impact a child’s ability to learn. This includes mental health concerns, such as anxiety and depression, as well as concussions and allergies.

“What section 504 is not,” Connor said, “it is not special education. I say that to every student who comes in when we talk to the parents. It doesn’t modify their curriculum… it doesn’t limit their ability to get an education like everyone else does. It’s not specialized education and it’s not in a place to boost a student’s GPA.”

Connor said it is also not for students who don’t have an impairment that substantially limits life activities.

“It’s a matter of how it’s impacting you – does it have a significant impact on your life in some way shape or form,” Connor said.

Connor called the recent statistics “eye-opening” and shared them with school board members on Monday.

The 2014-15 school year had the same number of students with 504 plans as 2019-20 school year, both with 179 students.

What has changed over time are the reasons for referrals. Connor said there have been a 30% increase in mental health referrals.

“We’re getting them more and more. The anxiety, the depression is becoming overwhelming for some of these students,” Connor said. “They are not attending school, they don’t know how to cope with their anxiety. They can’t concentrate while they’re in class. We’re seeing that a lot more.”

During the 2018-19 school year, Connor received 42 new referrals. Of those 42 referrals:

• 24% were for medical diagnoses such as diabetes, concussions, migraines;

• 28% were for students with ADHD;

• 48% were for mental health diagnoses.

“It’s been a trend over the years, getting more and more of the mental health diagnoses,” Connor said.

Connor also offered statistics from this year. Currently, there are 179 students with 504 plans: 105 males and 74 females. Of the 105 males, 54% have ADHD and 13% have reported mental health diagnoses.

“It doesn’t mean they don’t have mental health concerns. It just means that, maybe, the ADHD concerns are much bigger and more known to that,” Connor said. “Whereas the females, is the opposite. You have only 10% are coming in with ADHD diagnoses and 47% with mental health diagnoses.

In addition, Connor said they are seeing more students with migraines that ever.

As for the school’s response to these statistics, Connor said the elementary schools have begun mental health initiatives.

“Mental health initiatives in the elementary school has been amazing because we’re starting young. We’re starting when they’re first starting to see these students struggling with some of this mental health stuff and putting things in place. I’m grateful we’re starting that. It’s going to take a while to start to get up to the high school, but that’s why we have the transition efforts between the schools.”

Connor called it a team effort across the schools.

“These students need to know that we’re all here to support them,” Connor said. “I think the biggest concern is, we have so many students that have this anxiety that just don’t know how to cope with these situations.”

This is why, Connor said teaching students about coping skills and how to solve problems will help, “so it doesn’t get to the point where it is impacting their everyday education.”

Connor is also working with school staff and families to build relationships for the students that will last for years, so that “the students feel like they have support put in place.”

“They have a connection to the school. It’s not just me, with a teacher, anything, it helps them to come to school. It helps them to feel safe in school and it helps them to let us know what’s going on in their lives,” Connor said. “… There’s all kinds of things that are going on in their lives that we don’t know.”

Merrimack High School Principal Sharon Putney also spoke on the support efforts of the school.

“I think the more we can try to figure out how to meet the needs of all of our students, the better off these students are going to be, not only with academic supports, but also mental health supports, guidance supports,” Putney said.

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