MCPS, DHHS hold mental health forum to spread awareness of student resources


Photo courtesy MCPS

Attendees participated in breakout sessions with school counselors, psychologists, student personnel workers, MCPS administrators and DHHS officials.

By Amelia Laroski

MCPS and the Montgomery County Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) hosted a mental health forum for students and their families at Seneca Valley High School on May 31.

Attendees participated in breakout sessions with school counselors, psychologists, student personnel workers, MCPS administrators and DHHS officials. The school district also hosted a resource fair that offered information to families on topics that ranged from anxiety to restorative justice. 

In the breakout sessions, families and mental health professionals discussed challenges that many of the district’s students are struggling with, including anxiety, stress and depression. The school district also gathered feedback in the sessions from families about their use of existing mental health resources. 

Over 100 students and parents attended the forum, which took place amidst community concerns over a nationwide teen mental health crisis

Since students returned to in-person learning last year, administrators have witnessed the impact of the mental health crisis in schools across the district, said Seneca Valley High School principal Marc Cohen. Some families struggle with anxiety about future COVID-19 outbreaks and face food or housing insecurity, and as an administrator, he feels responsible for providing resources to support families through these challenges, Cohen said. 

“I see families struggling and dealing with issues that they would’ve never imagined having to deal with,” Cohen said. “That has become an all-consuming part of my job as a principal, helping to make sure that our school is a safe place for our students and their families.”

Students continue to face difficulties with attendance, academic performance, and focus as they grapple with mental health challenges that emerged over the pandemic, said psychologist Callie Tucker who works with MCPS’ Social Emotional Special Education Services program to provide services for individuals experiencing emotional or behavioral difficulties. The return to in-person learning also led to an increase in homework, extracurricular commitments and the amount of time students spent in school, she said.  

In April, the Montgomery County Council allocated $8 million in funding for MCPS high schools to open High School Wellness Centers (HSWCs), which provide a range of school-based services like preventative care, mental health services, social services and sick care. The county will distribute funds to all high schools in the county to upgrade existing HSWCs, construct additional HSWCs in portable classrooms and designate additional space in schools for wellness centers. 

Still, Seneca Valley High School junior Bethany Fuss feels that student mental health is often misunderstood, making forums like MCPS’ mental health event an important way to connect families to resources.

“I think MCPS has made a very valiant effort,” Fuss said. “But I think there’s still a lot to be done…sometimes it feels like if you don’t go out of your way to learn about the resources that MCPS has, you might not know about them.”

MCPS Psychological Services Director Christina Chester oversees the school district’s behavior threat assessment initiative, which identifies, assesses and aims to manage the risk of targeted violence threats posed by an individual or group. In an interview, Chester said that the school district’s bullying prevention programs target the underlying cause of suicidal and violent tendencies, while the district’s suicide prevention and other mental health programs aim to identify and assist individuals who pose a threat to themselves and others.

“When we look at some of the research around individuals who have committed acts of violence against the school, we know that a significant number of them suffered from mental health issues,” Chester said. “Usually [we ask], ‘what types of interventions can we put in place in order to help them not want to harm others anymore?’” 

Amidst a nationwide mental health crisis among teens, attendees and speakers believe that the forum’s resource fair and breakout sessions were an important opportunity for families to learn about MCPS’ mental health resources, Tucker said.

“It is a challenging time for everyone and high school is hard enough as it is, so don’t be afraid to reach out and ask for support when you need it,” Tucker said. “This forum is a really good opportunity to open the door for some important conversations and to make the county better so that we can support our students.”


Mental health resources:

Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255 or chat

Montgomery County Crisis Center: 240-777-4000

Whitman Counseling Department