School leaders respond to mental health, substance abuse issues

Martha’s Vineyard Regional High school has teamed up with the Island Wide Youth Collaborative to provide services to help students.

Interim MVRHS principal Peg Regan, left, and special education support professional Jennifer Woods helped create a student assistance reference box, which allows students to express concerns anonymously. — Photo by Cathryn McCann

Faced with an increase in emergency service evaluations and off-Island facility placements for students, Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) administrators and staff are bolstering efforts to provide services to students struggling with mental health or substance abuse issues.

From 2014 to 2015, the community services’ emergency services program — the on-Island 24-hour crisis hotline for mental health and substance abuse — provided a total of 68 evaluations for high school or charter school students between the ages of 14 and 18. Of those evaluations, 33 resulted in placements to an inpatient psychiatric facility or in-patient substance abuse facility.

In the first three months of the 2015-16 school year, there were 12 emergency service evaluations, and three off-Island placements. In the past three weeks, there were three additional hospital placements.

Island schools are not immune to drug and mental health issues that have affected communities across the nation over the years. These include anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, self-injury, and substance abuse.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 25.1 percent of children ages 13 to 18 are diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. At the same time, the largest increase in illicit drug use in the United States has been among those in their late teens and 20s, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

When Margaret “Peg” Regan stepped in to fill the role of interim principal following the unexpected departure of Gil Traverso, she made it a mission to create avenues within the school for struggling students to get help. Under her leadership, and with the support of Martha’s Vineyard Community Services (MVCS), the Island’s social services umbrella organization, located across the street from the high school, there are now a number of support services for students battling mental health or substance abuse issues under the auspices of the Island Wide Youth Collaborative (IWYC), a new family resource center.

In a recent conversation, school leaders sat down with The Times to speak about their initiatives, strategies, and perspectives on the challenges within today’s school environment.

Support is key

“I think the most important thing is that with Peg on board, we now have an administration that really wants to look at supporting kids rather than just disciplining them,” guidance counselor Amy Lilavois told The Times. “That’s key because for us, we’re a high school and education is primary, but not when somebody is really struggling with mental health and substance abuse issues. That comes first.”

This year Ms. Lilavois, special education support professional Jennifer Woods, school nurse Linda Leonard, and juvenile probation officer Shawn Schofield are the team behind the newly implemented Student Assistant Programs. One goal is to “reduce students’ behavioral and disciplinary violations and substance use habits while improving school attendance and academic performance through the referral and facilitation of appropriate services.”

Ms. Regan said support throughout the day is key. “Ideally, for students struggling with addiction, and trying to remain sober, they will have the support during the school day and into the evening so they can remain in school and finish and graduate,” Ms. Regan said. “That’s our big goal. We’re trying to figure out how to do that best.”

Sobriety homeroom

The support begins as early as the first bell in the morning. This year, Ms. Woods is working as a student-assistance liaison. She holds a homeroom each morning for students who are required to report to school sober. They meet for 15 to 20 minutes in a room next to the principal’s office.

“If they were in trouble, either being high in school or having done something at a school function, they get 30 days of me, which normally would be a 10-day suspension,” Ms. Woods said. “Now it’s 30 days in homeroom, in lieu of suspension.”

Depending on the situation, Ms. Regan said, they are trying to utilize in-school suspension rather than out-of-school suspension. At the end of the 30 days of sobriety homeroom, students are asked to take a drug test, a new measure this year.

“We kind of said, This is why we’re investing so much in you, so we can see the results,” Ms. Regan said. “In some cases it’s been successful, and in other cases not so much, but at least it gives the student notice that we’re not just doing this for fun; we’re actually going to be doing this for results.”

So far, Ms. Woods said, she’s found the sobriety homeroom to be successful.

“I’ve had kids where I say, OK, you’re done, today’s your last day, and then they’re there the next day,” she said. “They’ll come in with another kid that they’re friends with.”

During the homeroom, the students can talk to Ms. Woods openly, without fear of consequence.

“Jen’s homeroom period is turning out to be a very useful time for kids to be able to talk candidly about their use to someone in the school who is not the principal or assistant principal,” Ms. Regan said. “She’s a trusted person for them.”

Clinician support

The team is also working on forming a lunchtime meeting with an IWYC clinician for students.

“If a kid is struggling staying sober, and they’re getting high before school, by the time that wears off, they’re showing all the withdrawal symptoms,” Ms. Lilavois said. “They’re irritable and they can’t sit still, so they’re not going to focus in school.”

The idea is to have a clinician come over at midday and pick up a few students, walk them back across the street to the IWYC with a bag lunch, and hold a short meeting.

After school, the IWYC is sponsoring Pathfinders, an adolescent recovery education group designed to engage and inform participants’ understanding of the impact of substance use, and expose them to alternatives to using drugs and alcohol. Each group is 1.5 hours, twice a week, and run by two clinicians. It began in late November.

The Island Counseling Center also formed a group called Ripple, a once-weekly educational and support group for the friends and family of those struggling with substance abuse.

The school guidance center has discretionary grant funding from the Tower Foundation which funds a four-session evaluation for students who school staff think may be struggling. Clinicians will go over the family and psychosocial history, speak with parents, the kids, school staff, and then give the school a report with recommendations for the student.

Looking out for each other

As a final measure, the team depends on students looking out for other students. New this year is a student assistance reference box in the school. Students can anonymously fill out a form to let the student assistance program team know about a concern that they might have, whether it be for themselves, another student, or a family member.

“If they themselves struggle with alcohol or know someone who is really struggling with alcohol or addiction, they can refer the person and there will be no disciplinary consequences for that,” Ms. Regan said.

Ms. Lilavois said the high school’s peer outreach program is essential to the student assistance program. Every year, students nominate 10 of their peers from each grade. As part of their service, the group is trained to report sightings of other students who may be struggling to an adult.

“I’ll tell you, in the 10 years that it’s been run, my No. 1 referral is the kids,” Ms. Lilavois said. “The kids are looking out for each other.”

Part of that, she said, is that the students are very aware of the seriousness of the issue, so much so that there’s very little stigma attached anymore.

“I don’t think there’s a lot of stigma attached to anything with these kids, and I don’t know if that’s good or bad,” she said. “It’s just become so commonplace.”

Their use, while commonplace, is not necessarily informed. “I know a young kid who started using these different things, but he didn’t know that Oxycontin leads to heroin, or that Oxycontin affects your brain the same way that heroin does, and the reasons why people end up using heroin,” Ms. Woods said.

And that’s why the school’s involvement is essential, Ms. Lilavois said.

“I think a lot of people would argue that a school should be strictly for academic purposes, but that’s not the reality,” she said. “The guidance department is a constant revolving door. There’s very rarely a time when there’s not a student or 10 waiting to talk to somebody.”

“The kids are coming to school under the influence, or they’re coming to the high school with addiction issues, either themselves or in their families, and this is where they come,” Ms. Regan said. “This is the only game in town for anyone between 14 and 18, until you graduate. They’re here. For us to be able to help kids and help families move out of that system is really, really critical.”

Same problem, some changes

Prior to her retirement, Ms. Regan was high school principal from 1999 to 2008. Now that she’s stepped in as interim principal for the year, she doesn’t necessarily think that substance abuse is a larger issue than before. Instead, more people are stepping up and talking about it, rather than keeping it under wraps.

“I think it’s more about how bold you want to be about calling it out in the places that you work, if it’s an issue on the Island or an issue at the high school,” Ms. Regan said. “I think that we need to be able to say, Yeah, this is happening, we’re dealing with it, we’re suffering with it, families are impacted by it, and how can we connect to create a continuum of health.”

Ms. Lilavois, who has been a counselor on the Island for over 10 years, agreed.

“I think the substance abuse problem has been even-keeled,” she said. “Ten years ago it was still an issue. I think that finally the Island is coming together to really collaboratively work on the issue, on breaking down those silos and working together to tackle the issue.”

But there have been some changes, Ms. Woods noted, especially in the substances that students are reaching for.

“I was in high school when Peg was principal, and I think the biggest difference is what drugs they’re using,” Ms. Woods said. “When I was in school, drinking was huge; smoking pot was huge. Pills are huge right now.”

And it all ties in with the nationwide increase in anxiety and depression among young people. Ms. Lilavois said the school has seen a dramatic spike in students struggling with anxiety, depression, self-injury, and suicidal ideation in the past three to four years. She said that issue stems from a conglomeration of triggers.

“There’s a lot of social or cultural issues that are going on in our country, which has created a level of anxiety in parents, and that trickles down to the kids,” she said. “And of course you can’t rule out, and everybody is sick of hearing it, but the Internet doesn’t help. I think self-injury has blown up because kids are posting about it. There’s so little privacy.”

Additionally, it’s hard to know if the Island summer culture adds to the substance abuse problem at all, Ms. Regan said. She didn’t know if the school will ever significantly improve the issue, but they hope to manage it with the help of the community, she said.

“We operate on the Island as kind of little institutional silos, towns, but the schools are not going to solve this problem of addiction or getting kids sober, so we have to have those networks with community services because it doesn’t end at 2:06 when the bell rings,” Ms. Regan said.

Ms. Lilavois said that although the students are still a bit skeptical about the steps the school is taking, it’s important to address the issue early on.

“Talking to somebody who’s 40 who has never been in therapy before is far more difficult than talking to an 18-year-old who started talking when they were 14,” she said. “It’s teaching them the art of conversation and how that dialogue can really be helpful.”

And they need to continue opening up the discussion, across the school, Ms. Regan said.

“Really having every faculty member in your school and every adult in your school be part of your student assistance program in the end, so it doesn’t just have to come to Jen or come to Amy or come to me, that anybody can say, I know how I can help you,” she said. “Ideally, over time, that’s what will happen — every faculty member will feel like, I know how to help you with that.”

And that plays into a much more specific goal, Ms. Regan said.

“What we want to do is have them finish their education, regardless of what they’re struggling with,” she said. “We want them to graduate and cross the stage.”