County leaders address mental health concerns during virtual discussion


Greer Vermilye

County officials held a listening session on mental health and wellness.

By Zach Poe

In response to recent tragedies across MCPS, county officials and local student magazine “The Amplifier” held a listening session on mental health and wellness on February 23.

Panelists included Student Member of the Board of Education Hana O’Looney, Director of the Montgomery County Department of Health and Human Services Raymond Crowell and Montgomery County Council President Gabe Albornoz (‘94). 

Councilmember Tom Hucker began the meeting by calling for action on a range of mental health issues students are facing that have been exacerbated by the pandemic and several deaths of students and former students.

“We’ve lost nine students and recent graduates since January to suicide or homicide,” Hucker said. “We’ll never know if we could’ve done anything to prevent those tragedies, but we know that we haven’t been doing enough. That’s why we’re here tonight.”

O’Looney highlighted the issue of deteriorating mental health since the pandemic and the Board’s struggle to address the shortage of social workers in the county. According to O’Looney, MCPS has allocated funding for 50 social workers, but has failed to hire that number. 

“Coming straight from 18 months of virtual learning into an in-person learning has been very difficult for students and brought a lot of challenges that many never expected,” O’Looney said. “We’ve heard that there aren’t a lot of mental health staff, like psychologists and social workers. Even though we’ve budgeted out 50 social workers, we’ve only been able to hire seven because other counties are also suffering from this mental health crisis.”

Following the opening speeches, students testified about MCPS policies regarding mental health.

Several students discussed the issue of school start times and how early bells are negatively affecting academic performance as well as their mental health. 

“The primary issue that I want to focus on is sleep deprivation that a lot of students have been facing recently,” said a senior at Walter Johnson High School identified only as Bradley. “Recent reports from several credible organizations all state that no school should be starting any earlier than 8:30 am. Now, it’s very difficult with a lot of things from a logistical standpoint to make sudden changes like this, but it shows that it’s a critical point of time where students need sleep.”

This sentiment sparked a dialogue among several other students, but panelists never directly addressed the proposition.

“Waking up at 7:00 a.m. to attend an 8:00 a.m. language class has been very difficult for me,” another senior said. “I can’t focus or really learn the language compared to when I used to take it later in the day.”

Other students criticized the mental health days instituted in many MCPS schools to give students a break, claiming that they were consistently circumvented by teachers who found a way to assign work regardless. 

“Teachers have found loopholes to overcome mental health days by still having pending assignments or assigning additional work anyway,” said Richard Montgomery High School freshman Elani Bui. “The time that was originally allotted for students’ mental health has been taken advantage of by teachers in a way that prevents us from getting the break we need.”

Much of the night was dedicated to making attendees aware of already existing mental health resources available to MCPS students.

“We have a crisis center open 24/7 if a crisis were to arise, and students have made use of this service,” Crowell said. ‘There are some providers that are helping provide mental health services in schools, but we acknowledge that there is not enough to deal with this crisis in a post-covid world.”

Panelists claimed that they needed to come up with new, “out-of-the-box” solutions to address the mental health crisis with a limited budget and labor pool. 

“I can’t even begin to process what you all have had to deal with over these past few years,” Albornoz said. “We’re here to help however we can, we love all of you, we respect all of you, and we want to make sure we support all of you.”