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Harford forming Student Mental Health Council to promote mental wellness in schools, seeking applicants

Harford County Public Schools Student Board Member Joshua Oltarzewski is looking for students from each middle and high school in Harford County to join him and other high schoolers serve on the new Student Mental Health Council.

The council will be a group of students dedicated to promoting mental wellness and eliminating the stigma surrounding mental health in schools, according to a news release from the school system.

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HCPS Mental Health Specialist Christina Alton will provide guidance for the council, which will strive for each student to have access to support for stress, anxiety, depression and other mental health challenges students are facing each day, according to the school system.

“It is important to take care of our emotional needs just as much as we take care of our physical needs,” Alton said in a prepared release. “We will immediately go to the doctor for a physical ailment but won’t always do the same for our mental health.”

Students currently in grades 6 through 11 interested in becoming a part of the Student Mental Health Council for the remainder of this school year and next school year are encouraged to apply now. Applications are available on www.hcps.org under the “Communications” banner and are due no later than Wednesday, May 1.

Questions regarding the application can be sent to Joshua.Oltarzewski@hcps.org or Christina.Alton@hcps.org.

“Our goal is to have at least one student from each middle school and high school on the council so that we have unique perspectives and diverse representation,” Oltarzewski said.

It isn’t necessary students have any personal experience with mental health issues to join the council, rather if a student “has an interest in addressing the stigma surrounding mental health issues and creating comfort in having open and honest discussions, this is the group for them,” Alton said in an email. “I feel the group is equally committed to encouraging kindness and acceptance.”

Oltarzewski said the council is looking to break down barriers and the stigma behind the mental health conversation.

“Ultimately I believe our long-term goals are to reduce the stigma behind mental health, to assist HCPS in making current and future resources for students in need — both in-house and community-based — more easily accessible, and to promote the positive things young people are doing our schools and in our community to better the places we live and work,” he said.

Students on the council will have the opportunity to engage in meaningful dialogue with the student board member, the mental health specialist, and Harford County Public Schools’ leadership on student needs and perspectives regarding mental health, according to the release.

“Mental health challenges have always existed, but kids are becoming more open about the topic now,” said Haley Slaughter, a senior at C. Milton Wright High School, in the school system release. “That openness gives recognition to the importance of mental health and wellness in our schools.”

The council will also lead in the development of new mental health initiatives in Harford County schools and provide feedback on those currently offered.

For the past few years the county has offered Youth Mental Health First Aid training to staff members, Alton said. Part of her position is to coordinate the current trainers, and become a trainer herself, to offer that course with greater frequency to staff members. She is also working with one of the high schools to offer QPR, a suicide prevention training, to a group of students on an upcoming early dismissal day, she said.

Earlier this year, Oltarzewski, 18, a senior in Harford Tech’s cyber security program, formed an advisory group made up of a half-dozen high school students passionate about mental health to see how it influences student behavior and success. The group identified the mental health challenges students are facing and are introducing new mental health initiatives for the closing months of the 2018-19 school year.

“This group stemmed out of the Superintendent's Student Advisory Council,” Olatrzewski said. “In January they met and overwhelmingly decided that mental health was one of the most important issues that affected any student's ability to thrive in a classroom. We saw a need to have an independent group that could meet more frequently, so we formed a small pilot group. Most of the students here had already started the discussion about mental health within their schools and brainstormed ways they could carry some of their ideas to the county level.”

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These students, along with those who will join the Student Mental Health Council in May, will continue these efforts into next school year.

Alton started with HCPS in February, right around the time Oltarzewski’s group began meeting.

“Much of what we have done is meet with a variety of folks within the county who have an interest in mental health and will support the efforts of these students,” she said. “I have been impressed by their shared desire to address and combat the stigma that surrounds mental health issues.”

One way they hope to do that is by planning mental wellness evenings in various parts of the county in the 2019-20 school year, Alton said. These community engagement nights are intended to spark discussion on student success and wellness, according to the school system’s release.

These events will be modeled after Bel Air High School’s Family-Teacher Connection Night, held in January, and feature educational sessions for students and parents on topics such as college planning, time management, study strategies, mental health and other topics.

“Our primary goal with [January’s] event was to set our students up to be successful — not only in school, but also in life,” said Andrew Kassouf, math teacher at Bel Air High School, in the release.

A presentation will also be given at a future school board meeting outlining the groups ideas and action items for the public, Oltarzewski said.

“The one initiative I will share with you is this: One of the biggest things we can do as a community to address mental health and wellness is to have a conversation,” he said. “If we can't feel comfortable talking about it, how will we be able to support the needs of individuals? Reducing stigma is something that families can start doing right now by simply initiating that discussion within their household.”

The group is planning to use social media to effectively engage students, staff and parents on mental health and wellness across Harford County schools.

“Our administration uses social media to share school happenings and promote student events. It helps to increase awareness of the participation and enthusiasm our school community has for one another,” Alli Chenworth, junior at Patterson Mill High School, another member of the student advisory group, said in the prepared release.

A system-wide social media campaign promoting mental wellness and support resources is slated to roll out over the coming weeks, according to the news release. Alton said she has established a social media presence on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram under the name HCPS Mental Health Zone.

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Alton said the school system’s hiring of her position “shows a commitment to meeting the mental health and wellness needs of our students.”

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