For four hours on Jan. 11, more than 400 Montgomery County Public Schools students, parents and educators gathered at Earle B. Wood Middle School for the third annual MCPS Montgomery County Council of PTA (MCCPTA) Mental Health and Wellness Forum to discuss and learn about mental health. And that—having a conversation—is the best way to decrease the stigma still associated with talking about mental health, said Rachel Larkin, director of crisis prevention and intervention at Rockville-based EveryMind.
MCCPTA Health and Safety Committee Chair Sunil Dasgupta, PhD said he had three main objectives in mind when first launching the forum three years ago. Aside from mitigating the stigma associated with mental health issues, the goal, he said, is to connect students, families and MCPS staff with the available resources and to build a coalition that will demand greater support for youth health and wellness within the county.
“In many cultures, we’re taught to hold (mental health struggles) close to our chest,” Dasgupta said. “We want people to be able to stand up and say, ‘I have a problem, please help me.’”
This year’s keynote speaker was Dr. Raymond Crowel, a clinical psychologist with more than 30 years of experience who is now serving as director of the Montgomery County Department of Health and Human Services. Breakout sessions included
“Teen Depression and Suicide Ideation,” “I Need Help Now: Accessing Care and Responding” and “Youth Panel on Cross-Cultural Mental Health Challenges.”
The day also included a free eight-hour Mental Health First Aid training course, a principals-only workshop—“How to Make Your School Trauma-informed”—a resource fair and “What’s Hiding in Your Home,” an opportunity for adults to step into a mock teen bedroom trailer to learn more about picking up on signs their teen might be at risk. This year’s event concluded with “Student Talkback” during which student representatives addressed common challenges and trends among their peers.
“It’s very important to regularly ask your child whether he or she is depressed; a direct question, with empathy and care,” Dasgupta said. “Following that I recommend parents hear what other kids are saying. Hear what your kids’ peers are saying.”
Between social media, school shootings, the concern over climate change and the overall pressure to be perfect all the time, this generation has a much more stressful growing up environment than any other, Larkin said. And people are finally starting to realize that kids can’t succeed in the classroom, if they are not mentally well. In 2019 MCPS launched a new initiative, Be Well 365, to address the physical, social and psychological health of students and ensure they have the necessary skills to become positive members of the school and community, manage their emotions, identify and access support for themselves and/or their friends, and more. And it’s up to educators, Quince Orchard Principal Beth Thomas said, to cultivate an environment in which students feel comfortable enough to seek help.
“I’m very proud of our students and staff for their commitment on mental health and wellbeing,” Thomas said. “Students’ mental health is our No. 1 priority, and we try to make sure they understand how to navigate (the pressure and stresses).”
Perhaps the biggest struggle for mental health professionals—and the reason events like the MCCPTA Mental Health Forum are so important—is dealing with parents who are uncomfortable with the subject or don’t believe mental illness is out of their child’s control.
“It’s important to enforce the mind-body connection,” Larkin said. “If a child is bleeding out or has diabetes, of course you’re going to get treatment. You’re not going to tell them to suck it up or stop being dramatic. You have to work through coping
(with mental illness). You have to acknowledge it and help support getting the proper resources.”