Rye schools have opened a mental health clinic on the campus of Midland School to help address a national mental health crisis affecting school children, including those in Rye.
“Rye is not immune from the increasing mental health challenges facing young people nationwide,” School Superintendent Eric Byrne said in an interview. He cited a 2021 U.S. Surgeon General’s report that called the increase in youth mental health needs “the defining public health crisis of our time.”
Further, the report noted that even before the pandemic, surveys of U.S. youth showed major increases in certain mental health symptoms, including depressive symptoms and suicidal ideation.
The new clinic, which opened on November 27, offers services to the district’s students and their families by appointment three days a week, before, during and after the school day. Appointments include individual, group, and family counseling and therapy, and student, parent and community education programs.
The District expects a caseload of 17 students at any one time, projecting that the Clinic will treat about 50 students over the course of the year. There are currently four students in ongoing treatment.
The clinic’s team will include Graciela Gerace Cerda, a licensed clinical social worker, as well as a family support worker. Both will be there three days a week. A psychiatrist will available to work with the clinical team when needed.
“It’s easy to look at the staggering statistics and think ‘not my child, not my family,’” said Lisa Dominici, executive director of the Rye Youth Council, which works with the Rye City School District on mental health issues. “Yet with one in five youth ages 12 to17 experiencing a mental health illness, each of us has a personal story or knows someone whose child is struggling.”
The clinic is a partnership between the Rye school district, the nonprofit Westchester Jewish Community Services, and the Westchester County Department of Community Mental Health.
Jewish Community Services is the county’s largest provider of community-based licensed outpatient services. It has hired staff and is operating the Rye clinic. Dr. Erin Vredenburgh, the school district’s director of pupil personnel services and special education, is the district’s liaison with WJCS. In addition to the Rye clinic, WJCS operates satellite mental health clinics for the Elmsford, Peekskill, and Yonkers school districts.
The Department of Community Mental Health, whose commissioner is Michael Orth, is a countywide resource for services to individuals with behavioral health issues and their families. Behavioral health includes mental illness, developmental and intellectual disabilities and substance use disorders.
“I began working with Michael Orth a while back looking for creative ways to find additional mental health support in our schools,” Byrne said. “He brought WJCS to the table, secured some funding from New York State and helped navigate the state’s approval process.”
“Funding for the clinic,” Byrne said, “will come entirely from outside sources. Rye taxpayers will not have to pay a penny in additional taxes.” The initial cost to the district would have been $50,000, he added, but “that $50,000 has been funded by the County, thanks to County Legislator Catherine Parker and County Executive George Latimer” – both Rye residents. The clinic will accept private insurance as well as Medicaid from qualifying students’ families.
With the opening of the satellite mental health clinic, the Rye school district has in place a multi-tiered system of support that offers prevention, early intervention, and treatment. “The clinic will not replace school-based counseling,” Byrne said. “It is for students who require more support than is offered through school.”
In the Rye City schools, he said, “we have built a K-12 structure. We have a full-time school psychologist at every elementary school and counselors who meet with students, support families, and teach social-emotional lessons in classrooms. There are two full-time school psychologists at both Rye Middle School and Rye High School, and each school has a full-time social worker who meets with students, supports families and provides family workshops.”
Referrals to the clinic are determined by the individual schools and through the district’s Multi-tiered Systems of Support teams, which provide screening, progress monitoring, prevention, and data-based decision making. If families express an interest or need, they are referred for services.
Jane Anderson, president of the Rye City Board of Education, hailed the clinic’s opening as a significant benefit for students.
“The creation of a satellite mental health clinic will greatly help our students both social-emotionally and academically,” she said. “Our students can have access to the best curriculum and teachers in the world and none of that matters if they are unable to focus in school because of their social and emotional health. We are grateful to our partners at the WJCS and our state and local legislators for their support in bringing these vital services to our community.”
Rising Rates of Psychological Distress
From 2009 to 2019, the proportion of U.S. high school students reporting persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness increased by 40 percent. Since the global pandemic began, rates of psychological distress among young people, including symptoms of anxiety, depression and other mental health disorders have increased significantly: 2021 research involving 80,000 youth (globally) found that depressive and anxiety symptoms doubled during the pandemic.
— U.S. Surgeon General’s Advisory, “Protecting Youth Mental Health” (2021)