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Mental Health services dominated Citizen Comment at the May 20 District 202 Board meeting. Cari Levin, founder and executive director of CASE, Citizens for Appropriate Special Education, said, “May is National Mental Health Awareness Month. … I am speaking to you tonight about our concern regarding the mental health needs of ETHS students. For adolescents, the first signs of mental illness or emotional distress often emerge in the school environment. The risk factors for teenagers are high. Nationally, over 20 percent of youth experience a diagnosable mental health problem. Research shows that emotional and behavioral health issues present significant barriers to learning, academic achievement and high standardized test scores.”
She said many parents had contacted CASE in recent months with concerns that the school social workers and psychologists are “so over-loaded with cases that they cannot offer students sufficient time and access to emotional support. Special services staff excessively delayed and refused evaluation, despite evidence of severe mental health crises (including multiple hospitalizations and suicide risk).”
Ms. Levin proffered a letter signed by students and residents, asking that, as a first step, the Board review the mental health services offered at ETHS “to ensure that there is a continuum of effective interventions, and that students are afforded timely access to such services and supports.”
No criticms of school staff was intended, said Ms. Levin. “We are, however, asking you to abide by your obligation under Federal Special Education Law (the IDEA) to identify, evaluate and provide services in a timely manner to students with mental health related disabilities at ETHS.”
ETHS sophomore Elliot Gross said, “I am here tonight because I wanted to express the concern of many ETHS students over mental health services at the high school.” He said he had shown the letter from CASE to several of his friends and they circulated it among students, obtaining 225 signatures for the letter in four days. He said, “So many students see mental health issues as a major concern at ETHS.” Yet they are reluctant to talk with parents or teachers “when they are feeling depressed or anxious or are having social problems.”
The CASE letter prompted some students to tell him of their dealings with ETHS staff, Elliot said: “[T]hey did tell a staff member and that staff member either reacted inappropriately or dismissed them entirely. These responses make it even harder for these students to speak up.”
Julie de Lara, another member of CASE, made specific recommendations about how to improve the ETHS website for those looking for information about special education: ensuring the information about special education can be accessed from multiple drop-downs; listing the name of the special education director and contact information; creating a special education handbook that can be downloaded; and providing links to the Illinois State Board of Education and the U.S. Department of Education. “Information is free,” she said, “and education is something ETHS does well.”
Rachel Gross read part of President Barack Obama’s declaration of May as Mental Health Awareness month. Severe mental illnesses and conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and bipolar disorder strain not just the person’s life but the lives of those around him or her. “The shame and stigma too often make people feel like there is no place to turn.”
Jim Lal-tabak, who said he works with a physician and advocates for students and adults, said “Today, students are under an increasing amount of stress. … Often brilliant students are being assessed, medicated and sent to ‘therapeutic’ schools. They often drop out of those schools.” He said he is concerned that many students are misdiagnosed or over-diagnosed, with mental problems when sometimes those conditions are “environmentally based.”
Board President Gretchen Livingston said that Board members customarily do not respond to citizen comments. The Board will reportedly follow up on the concerns expressed about mental health services at ETHS.