WESTBOROUGH — In a hotel conference room, Dr. Jim Howland stood up and asked school administrators, teachers, coaches, and social workers to share any stories of students who have struggled with mental health issues.
But first came his own, oft-repeated narrative.
“When they asked their student-athletes why they chose to play the sport they play, some of them will just say that they hate it,” said Dr. Howland, a mental health clinician at Merrimack College. “They come and talk to me and tell me that they can’t talk to their coaches about their stress or anxiety . . . They tell me that, ‘If my coach knows, then I’m going to get benched.’ ”
His stories and message resonated with those in attendance Friday morning at the fifth MIAA/MSAA Mental Health Summit, a collaborative between the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association and the Massachuchusetts Secondary Administrators’ Association. After an overwhelming amount of positive feedback from previous sessions, the program increased the number of workshops to 18 from 12.
Dr. Howland detailed how to recognize the early symptoms of depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and eating disorders among student-athletes.
“The student-athlete is someone who wants to make themselves look completely put together,” said Dr. Howland. “They don’t want people to notice. They think that they can push through it on their own.”
Other workshops focused on student resource offices in high schools, classroom meditation strategies, and social media usage.
“We try to provide as many resources and workshops that we think will be helpful to these school leaders,” said MIAA associate director Peter Smith. “We want them to bring the info they learn back to their schools.”
Foxborough boys’ hockey coach Mark Cedorchuk attended with the intention of learning new coping techniques that he can offer to his students in need. This past season, he dismissed a senior from his team who been caught using a vaping device in the locker room.
“[The students] see their friends doing it and they see it as a coping tool in the same degree as any other drug,” said Cedorchuk, a licensed guidance counselor and 18-year educator.
Cedorchuk believes students use controlled substances and social media mediums to cope with mental health issues generated from a hyper-competitive high school environment.
“The pressure of achieving at the highest level is destroying these kids,” said Cedorchuk. “These kids have been told from day one that they need to go to high school, then college, and then get a good job. If they don’t, they feel like they’ve failed.
“I want to get a better understanding of the barriers that many kids need to overcome.”
Cheryl Alfieri-Simmons, a case manager in the Acton-Boxborough school system, plans to implement the mindfulness and intentional interpersonal coping skills presented at the conference to create a healthier school environment.
She hopes that giving students time estimates to complete tasks, making expectations and schedules visible, and providing alternate ways of giving assignments or assessments leaves an impact on their development.
“It was helpful to hear from other professionals who experienced similar mental issues with students in their districts,” said Alfieri-Simmons. “It was even better here the simple strategies that we can use as educators to support students in classrooms.”
US Representative Joe Kennedy III ended the summit with an urgent call to action. He noted that 85 percent of kids in need of mental health treatment do not receive it, and that the number of young adults who reported serious psychological issues rose by 70 percent in the last decade .
“And those aren’t just statistics. Those are the kids you see. Those are the children you witness at their best and at their worst,” he said. “You see the warning signs and the stress and how a helping hand can change a life.”
He challenged the crowd to fill the gaps of what he called a broken mental healthcare system.
“We’re looking to you in this room to stand on the front lines,” he said.Mike Kotsopoulos can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.