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The mental health task force between Anne Arundel Public School officials and county government have set committees to tackle the biggest needs for students in the county.

The task force, a collaboration between the school system and county government, was an effort on behalf of the school board after increased rates of anxiety and depression among young people. Now, the task force created eight subcommittees to address the following contributing factors to mental health: discrimination, bias and cultural barriers; trauma; poverty; parental substance abuse; lack of access; stigma; stress and pressure; and social media.

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Each committee will have eight or nine members ranging from city and county police department employees, the county health agency, hospitals and organizations led by parents and students.

“These are all things that we feel are impacting the increase of mental health issues so we thought to examine them in smaller committees,” Ryan Voegtlin, director of student services and co-chair of the task force, said.

Voegtlin and Adrienne Mickler, co-chair and executive director of the Anne Arundel County Mental Health Agency, reviewed the first meeting’s feedback to understand the biggest challenges that attendees brought up in September . The next mental health task force meeting is Friday but is not open to the public, school system spokesman Bob Mosier said.

The first meeting brought together a crowded room full of people discussing the most pressing mental health concerns for children, contributing factors to needs and the level of collaboration across agency lines. During the first meeting, attendees reviewed alarming data.

According to the school system data on self-harm, 2018 to 2019 has seen the highest amount of reports with over 2,800 reports. In comparison, 2017 to 2018 had 2,370 reports and 2016 to 2017 had 1,861 reports.

Mickler and Voegtlin also selected leaders for each committee, which will then come up with recommendations that will be turned into a report for the board, Mickler said.

Pamela Brown, executive director of Partnership for Children, Youth and Families, said her committee focused on poverty will need to review related problems to understand the connection to mental health.

“There’s obviously an intersection between poverty and opportunity," Brown said. “How much of it is economic and how much of it is mental health...and how much of it is it situational depression that comes with living in poverty,” she added.

Poverty can also relate to other issues like a lack of food or safety concerns, she said.

Moving forward, she would like to review school data and zip code information that correlates to school programs like free and reduced meals.

"If we can do that, then we can look at individual schools and see the services that are already there,” she explained.

Other roadblocks to mental health services will be analyzed by the stigma committee, said Joe Van Deuren, founder of Balanced Life Skills and chairman of Youth Suicide Awareness.

“We are going to estimate the impact around stigma and mental health and how it plays into how they get help and don’t get help,” Van Deuren said about students. So far, he’s begun researching the topic and reached out to other committee members.

“Our real goal is to figure out the best practices that we can present to the Board of Education to suggest this as a direction,” he said.

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Along with data and research, committee leaders plan on reviewing resources. Joe Hudson, the Latino liaison for the Annapolis Police Department, is in charge of the discrimination, bias and cultural barriers committee and he pointed to a need for more bilingual services and identifying resources and therapists who offer such services, he said.

Hudson also wants his committee to understand the gravity of traumatic events that some students in the county have experienced like violence in home countries, the journey to the U.S. and interactions with immigration officers.

“Trauma is easily described as if you’ve packed a trip and you over packed. How far can you carry that suitcase before you are paralyzed and can’t move?”

In total, there are two more meetings scheduled and by April the task force will have a set of recommendations to present to the school board. The remainder of the task force meetings will not be open to the public, Mosier said.

“When the task force was put together, we announced that the first meeting of the group would be open to the public so that the public could get a sense of the work that was to be done. The remainder of the meetings, including any subcommittee meetings, are working sessions of the group,” Mosier said in an email.

The final report, he said, will be made to the Board in a public session.

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