Op-Ed: Mental Health is a Serious (Expletive) Problem, Meet of McMahon's Most Determined Trying to Change That
By: Austin Keller
Pridetime Senior Editor
W hen I first came in to interview for this op-ed, the thing that caught my eye was the thick stack of papers on her desk, under the dingy fluorescent lighting. The rainy Monday had only added to the cave-like feeling of the room.
For an office named, ‘Kids In Crisis,’ I was a little alarmed by just how many files there were, each unique to the student - the reason they ended up in her room at one point.
The vast majority of McMahons’ students will never meet Meghan Grasso, but for those who do, she may make all the difference. She is not a Norwalk Public Schools employee, but last year she was dispatched to the school as a TeenTalk Counselor on behalf of the Kids In Crisis program. Created in Greenwich, it attempts to serve minors in need with Crisis Intervention, any unsafe situation that needs help, fast. Masters-educated Mental Health counselors, like Grasso, are sent to local high schools. They do what they’re trained to do which is identifying at risk, depressed, anxious, traumatized, substance abusing students and sits down to talk to them.
The Zen garden on the coffee table, scented candles, tissue box, and rug-sized sweaters are just about anything and everything you might expect to find in a therapist's office. I’m a cynical kind of person, however, I’m having a tough time poking any holes in this. You can tell early on this isn't the office of some fifth avenue Manhattan, self-aggrandizing $250 an hour psychiatrist- this is where real kids with real struggles, and seemingly no one else to turn to, are welcomed with open arms.
It’s free, it’s confidential - and in the midst of a growing teenage mental health epidemic - it’s vital.
According to the Center for Disease Control, suicide rates in the last eight years have jumped in all fifty states, an average of thirty percent. In more than half of these, the victim were never diagnosed with a mental health condition. It has happened twice as much as homicides in the US in the last three years. It is now the second leading cause of death of teenagers, increasing by seventy-seven percent in the last five years.
In 2017, 11.4 per 100,000 teens took their lives.
A study of American Medical Association Hospitals, released in May, found that likely reasons are, spotty mental health screening, and poor access to mental health services. Spotty at times can be an understatement. Grasso detailed just how difficult accessing treatment can be for clients at local pediatric care centers that her program collaborates with to patch kids through care.
“Some of them have to wait weeks to see a psychiatrist just once. I had one girl who had to wait, like, six months for an appointment. That’s what’s frustrating about the mental health system.” What is most troubling, to me at least, is that the same study found another significant reason people don’t seek treatment is stigma. Grasso demands that this needs to be stopped by, “making it less taboo, people never see me because they think there’s something wrong with them, or they're weird if they do.”
Last year, teachers underwent Professional Development Training for risk-identifying and trauma-informed care, said Grasso. “We’re trying to be more empathetic… less like ‘hey, what’s wrong with you?’”
But Grasso can not possibly stop this alone. Her outreach can only extend so far. Those who seek her out are the overwhelming minority, and for them alone she has a lot on her plate.
She even told me when I interviewed her on Monday, that had I been a kid looking to schedule an appointment, her only next availability was the Tuesday of next week. At some point, we as a school community, one that takes pride in its inclusivity, have to take on some of the load in those eight days.
It would be wrong of me to suggest that at McMahon we haven’t done anything to alleviate this, but it would be really convenient, and really naive, to say that we’ve all done enough. We can do better. Kids in Crisis tells us to welcome the conversation and be more open to talking about it.
“The truth is everyone is going through something at one point or another,” Grasso asserts.
Anyone and everyone in the building needs to learn the signs, and how to do the hardest part of Meghan Grasso’s job, reach out.
If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the hotline: 203-661-1911