Our Schools: A Message about mental health from Superintendent Dr. Thomas Smith

Dr. Thomas Smith

Regardless of your age, many of us can remember the social and emotional challenges we encountered during middle and high school. However, things are very different now and students are facing challenges that we never did, and at younger ages than ever before. In recent years, school administrators and staff have taken on an ever-increasing level of responsibility in assisting students as they attempt to weather these storms.  These changes are perhaps most notable in the area of mental health.  There was a time that the “experts” told us that mental health was not a school’s responsibility; some may still feel this way. But for the well-being of our children, our classrooms and building practices have adapted to better support our students’ needs. However, in order to best support our families, the school district cannot bear this important work alone.

As a district, we continue to focus resources on the social-emotional aspects of our students’ lives. Our programming includes a variety of approaches relevant to specific age groups. From yoga and mindfulness to suicide prevention and therapy dogs (who we are training with the guidance of “Attitudes in Reverse) we are reinforcing the importance of learning and teaching students about mental health. These practices must start at a young age and carry on through high school.  

Despite these efforts, we continue to see an alarming number of students and young adults in our community referred for mental health services, sent to crisis centers, or hospitalized for self-harming acts or ideations. From a societal perspective, it seems we still struggle to hold conversations around mental health, since sharing your own trials is often seen as a weakness. Many people will gladly share the name of their personal trainer or talk about how the new trend of intermittent fasting has helped them. Conversely, most of us would never share the name of our therapist or what medication or supplement we take to stabilize our mood. Sadly, the latter is still met with stigma, shame and embarrassment.

The Hopewell Valley is a wonderful place to live, to raise a family, and  to work, but we are not immune to mental and psychological health issues that plague any community. The efforts promoted by our district cannot end when the school doors close. Though school is a huge part of a student’s life, it is important to take into consideration that students are in school for only seven hours a day, for 182 days of the year. The importance of talking and learning about mental health must permeate throughout our lives outside of the school day. This is a community issue, and we need your support to help our children and neighbors, and to support those who support them as well.  

It is not enough for our children to learn about mental health; it is essential that the adults in their lives have education and understanding of, and are comfortable talking about, mental health issues. To help support our community,  the HVRSD has partnered with Heidi Kahme from the Municipal Alliance and with the Hopewell Valley Education Foundation to provide a Parenting Conference on March 28. We also are working with Julie Blake from the Hopewell Township Committee, and representatives from the departments of health, recreation and senior services to expand our community outreach. In the coming months, we will complete a health assets community mapping exercise to connect residents with the available resources in our community.  Other organizations, such as NAMI, are available to provide resources to families in our area.

Mental illness has touched the lives of many families in our community, yet many suffer in silence.  I have seen our community raise thousands of dollars for someone facing physical challenges, but with a mental illness, families often face these challenges alone. What can you do?  Start the conversation about mental health, offer support to someone who may need it, and participate in the community provided discussions/presentations. Encourage other community organizations that you may be involved with to sponsor, host, or to participate in these events as well.  We must work together so we don’t let anyone suffer in silence.

Submitted by Thomas A. Smith, Ed.D.
Superintendent of Schools, Hopewell Valley Regional School District

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