Belmont High PTSO Speaker Series Understanding Youth Mental Health: Guidance for Parents and Guardians On May 3

Photo: The poster for the Speaker Series event on May 3

On Tuesday, May 3, at 7 p.m., the Belmont Wellness Coalition will be present a ZOOM talk as part of the 2022 Belmont High School PTSO Speakers Series on “Understanding Youth Mental Health: Guidance for Parents and Guardians.”

A panel of BWC experts and a member of the Belmont High School Crisis Team will discuss topics such as:

• How to distinguish typical versus concerning behaviors,

• How to create a crisis plan,

• Self harm versus suicidal ideation,

• What to do when your child is in crisis, and

• The Belmont Schools Crisis Teams – who they are and what they do for students and families. 

Zoom Link

If you would like to submit questions in advance, please fill out this Google form:

1 in 5 Middle School Students Consider Self Harm, 9 Percent 7-12 ‘Made Suicide Plans’: Youth Risk Behavior Survey

Photo: the 2021 Belmont Youth Risk Behavior Survey (credit: CDC)

Jamal Saeh was shocked by what he had heard.

In March, 89 high school students and 56 middle schoolers in Belmont told health professionals that in the past year they had gone so far with a possible suicide to write out or record plans on taking their own lives.

“To say I’m stunned is an understatement,” said Saeh. “[It’s] mind boggling and frightening.”

The concerning statistics come from the 2021 Youth Risk Behavior Survey of Belmont’s 7-12 grade students presented to the Belmont School Committee on Nov. 9.

The survey’s data justifies Saeh concern: in terms of raw data nearly one-of-five middle school students has considered suicide and approximately 9 percent in both high and middle schools have gone so far as to detail the ultimate act of self-harm.

And among students who identify as gender Queer, the percentages are exponentially greater; 36 percent in high school have considered suicide while 31 percent have planned suicide.

“That is way too many kids,” said Lisa Gibalerio of the Belmont Wellness Coalition who authored the survey with the Education Development Center.

The survey comes as school systems nationwide are witnessing “a growing crisis” on mental health and risk issues, said Committee Chair Amy Checkoway. “Districts are not equipped to handle the number of issues that are arising,” she said after attending a conference of school committees.

The survey is the second conducted by the coalition surveyed a statistically large 1,710 students in 7 – 12 grades (655 at the Chenery Middle School and 1,055 at the high school) on substance abuse and mental health concerns before (in 2019) and during the Covid year 2021.

A PowerPoint summary of the survey can be viewed by linking to this site.

Survey highlights include:

  • a reduction in use of most drug categories including vaping and marijuana from 2019 to 2021.
  • a decline in bullying in the high school while it’s in-school bullying at the middle school has increased.
  • Stress continues to lead to loss of sleep and coping through risky alternatives such as alcohol and drugs.

The survey also looked at the top five stressors at the middle and high school, according to Ellie Lesser, a Belmont High sophomore serving as the study’s student ambassador. A third of all students point to school demands as the top reason for pressure in their lives with a busy school and extra curricular schedule and worries about the future such as college choices and career paths.

The Covid pandemic which halted in-school learning for more than a year added more to the plate of students with 70 percent feeling angry, fearful and sad.

For Belmont Superintendent John Phelan, the survey’s results are “startling” just how much stress – which has been at consistent levels for several years – is impacting so many students and how vulnerable they are to the repercussions that include abusing alcohol and self-harm. In recent years, Phelan admitted the district has not been keeping up with the professional services that students and staff need such as adjustment counselors, consulting services and professional development for teachers to identify and assist students.

But change has occurred during the pandemic. He pointed to the district hiring four social workers – the first hired by the district since Phelan came to Belmont in 2013 – in the current school year to meet the increasing demands for their services. He said the survey data calls for a two-fold approach focusing on providing community and school support from social emotional assistance.

“And [that district-wide clinical model] will be part of what we’re asking for moving forward,” Phelan told the committee.

“School is just not a place where it’s all about academics. If we are not having children feel safe, heard and valued, and able to be respected and known by the adults in the building, they’re not going to learn,” said Phelan.

The committee members all expressed a need not to allow the issue to fall by the wayside.

”The numbers should shock us,” said Mike Crowley of the data on suicide planning, which should force the committee to support the clinical model in future budgets. In additional, a community conversation with students, parents, the public and educators “because any child would be thinking of self harm in our schools, our community, we have to be concerned.”

Saeh said the conversation on risk behavior must be followed up with additional meetings on the proper level of staffing and assistance to students “because we cannot look at his data not react with incredible urgency.”

By reviewing the pre and post pandemic numbers, “the pandemic is not necessarily the culprit here, this is the environment of our high school and middle school,” said Saeh.

Ann Wang of the Education Development Center said Belmont can find successful programs being used in nearby communities such as Lexington and Newton which had student suicides. “These appear to have some impact that can be measured in reducing suicide attempts,” she noted.

Phelan said the solution in the schools is to start to put in place multiple layers of support to students at every level of the district.

“We are not looking to put numbers [in the upcoming school budget] right now, but we want to acknowledge the need and start with students talking about solutions and then start to price out those solutions so that the community can know whether they’re going to support that need or not.”

Opinion: Working To Keep Teens Safe Over The Holidays

Photo: Keeping teens healthy over the recess.

By: Lisa Gibalerio, Prevention Specialist, and Laura Kurman, Program Director

Wayside Youth & Family Support Network

With the holiday season underway and the opening of retail marijuana shops in Massachusetts, adults are urged to pay close attention to teenagers’ behavior concerning alcohol and other drugs in the days and months ahead.  The Belmont Wellness Coalition is working collaboratively with many partners across town to reduce underage use of alcohol and other drugs. Please be part of the solution and do what you can to reduce youth access to alcohol as well as marijuana products.

As we know, teen alcohol use can lead to unsafe behaviors that put our kids’ health and safety at risk. If we work together, we can help to ensure that our kids stay healthy and safe!  (By the way, for each year that a teen does not use alcohol, the odds of lifelong dependence decrease by 15 percent.)

Retail recreational marijuana shops are opening around the state. In Belmont, although there are no licenses or special permit applications at this time, the town could approve up to two retail marijuana establishments within certain zoned areas. While shops in Belmont would not be allowed to sell marijuana to people under the age of 25, teens may nevertheless find ways to access these products.

The Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS), administered several years ago in Belmont, revealed that approximately one-third of teens reported that they are drinking.  Most are getting alcohol from older siblings, older friends, or home.  In many instances, students said, their parents do not know they drink, or do not know how much they drink.

Often, due to their developing brains, when teens drink, they tend to drink too much. Teens who drink put themselves at risk for alcohol poisoning, car crashes, injuries, violence, or unprotected/unwanted sex, and, if they are athletes subject to the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association (MIAA) regulations, they may lose the privilege to participate in sports.

As a parent or guardian, you can and do make a difference!

Here are some tips to reduce teen drinking and use of marijuana:

  • Keep alcohol in a secure location, preferably in locked cabinets. Even if you trust your teen, their friends may be tempted by what’s available in your home.
  • If you are hosting a party, do not leave unsupervised alcohol around where it is accessible to underage guests. Tell other relatives not to serve alcohol to your child under the age of 21 as well.
  • Let your child know what you expect. Tell your teen that adults may be drinking during the holidays, but under no circumstances is he/she allowed to drink alcohol.
  • If your child is attending a party, check on the details. Find out if there will be parental supervision, and be sure no alcohol will be available at the parties that your teen will be attending.  Wait up to greet your child when he/she/they arrives home at curfew time.
  • Never serve alcohol to anyone under 21, and don’t allow children to serve alcohol to others. It is illegal to serve or provide alcohol to underage youth, or to allow them to drink alcohol in your home or on other property you control.  See Social Host Liability Law: http://www.mass.gov/essexda/prevention-and-intervention/juvenile-prevention/social-host-liability.html
  • Do not to leave your teenagers home alone if you go out of town. Word gets out quickly and a drinking party can develop – sometimes without your child’s consent.
  • Do not relax your family rules with your own teens during the holidays. It can be difficult to return to previous expectations.

The Belmont Wellness Coalition welcomes your input!  Please consider joining us as we work to keep our kids safe and healthy – it really does take a village!

The BWC, along with Wayside Multi-Service Center, wishes you a peaceful, safe, and happy holiday season.

If I can be of support to you or your teens, please contact me at: Lisa_Gibalerio@WaysideYouth.org

Belmont Wellness Coalition Awarded $625K Grant To Support Youth Substance Use Prevention 

Photo: A poster of one of the several services provided by the Belmont Wellness Coalition.

Under the auspices of Wayside Youth & Family Support Network’s Multi-Service Center in Watertown, the Belmont Wellness Coalition (BWC) was awarded a five-year Drug Free Communities grant from the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) and the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).

Belmont is one of only 120 communities nationwide to receive an award this grant cycle. The Town of Belmont is eager to bolster its youth substance use prevention efforts and to work collaboratively with a cross-section of town departments as well as community and youth members.

“This funding is a recognition by the federal government, that Belmont, through the establishment of the Belmont Wellness Coalition, is poised to roll up its sleeves and continue the work of reducing youth substance use through collaborative community efforts,” said Lisa Gibalerio, prevention specialist at Wayside, a long-time Belmont resident, and parent of three teenagers.

The BWC meets about once a month and enthusiastically welcomes new members.

Belmont will rely on the coalition to mobilize partners from across the community with the ultimate goal of implementing town-wide prevention strategies that reduce youth use of alcohol, marijuana, and other drugs. The focus of the first year is twofold; identifying the problem and capacity building.

This past year, the Coalition made a NARCAN training available for Belmont residents, provided a workshop at the Chenery Middle School on best practices for parenting teens, instituted a “Relaxation Station” at the high school during final exam week, and implemented a mini YRBS survey to 335 eighth graders in order to establish a baseline of data concerning substance use, perception of harm, and rates of parental disapproval.

The BWC hopes to develop an awareness campaign and to support parent education in order to shift the community norm away from the inevitability of underage substance use, i.e., that substance use is a “rite of passage” for youth.

The Belmont Wellness Coalition was founded in 2017 to support substance use prevention and education efforts.  Its membership includes parents, youth, community leaders, clergy, local business representation, as well as school department and town employees, all of whom work collaboratively to support the Coalition’s mission: to use education and empowerment to reduce substance use and to promote healthy choices and positive decision-making. 

For more information about the Drug Free Communities grant or the Belmont Wellness Coalition, please contact Lisa Gibalerio, MPH, prevention specialist at lisa_gibalerio@waysideyouth.org.