Despite progress, stigma persists


For an anonymous senior, openly discussing mental health has proved to be beneficial in combatting anxiety.

“Luckily I grew up in a family where there was no stigma surrounding mental health. It was okay to be not okay. But in other families, this can be frowned upon, which is where things get hard,” the anonymous student said.

After showing signs of anxiety, the student took proactive measures and started seeing a therapist and taking anti-anxiety medication, but not every student is as fortunate.

“That’s where guidance needs to be the support system that kids don’t get at home,” the anonymous student said.

According to National Public Radio, 20 percent of high school-aged students show signs of a mental health disorder.

Dulaney offers a limited amount of resources to its students in regards to mental health. Brandi Parenti is the school social worker on staff whose caseload is primarily made up of students with individualized education plans. But the larger student body rarely has access to her without a referral from a teacher or counselor.

“We have a school psychologist as well, but school psychologists in Baltimore County tend to serve students with identified disabilities already, so that pertains to students with IEPs,” guidance counselor John Komosa said.

But, Dulaney’s school psychologist is shared among various other schools and is only here three times a week. Other resources include a Baltimore County Public School hotline.

“Nobody is made aware of the resources they have. Just two weeks ago, I served as a student member at the board of education meeting and one of the candidates said ‘oh we need to have a BCPS Hotline’. We have one, but nobody knows that we have one,” senior Sofia Encarnacion said.

Psychology teacher Kendra Swam said that there are more county-sponsored professional development opportunities open to train teachers to be more equipped to recognize signs of mental health struggles than when she first started teaching. But she recognizes we are not doing enough.

“It can’t be something we ignore or brush under the rug because that immediately gives it the connotation that it’s something embarrassing or inappropriate or harmful,” Swam said.

About six years ago economics teacher Phil Bressler presented a progressive proposal to the administration and integrated leadership team in which he volunteered to teach a positive psychology course to all incoming ninth graders. This was voted down.

Assistant Principal Tom Dugas said this decision would have been made by the previous principal, Lynn Whitlock, and may have been due to enrollment issues and limited staffing.

Rather than instituting a class, the administration said its new mentoring program is an avenue to help ninth graders at-risk of dropping out. But this program does not specifically address mental health concerns and is not available to the general student body. Instead, it aims to assist at-risk ninth grade students who struggle with attendance and academic performance.

“It seems to me that we think if you are smart and doing well in school, that you are okay,” Bressler said.

Other students share concerns that there is not enough education surrounding mental health.

“I know in health class we go over mental health but it was a one or two day thing, and this is a really heavy topic that affects kids immensely,” senior Erin Hill said. “In health classes we should make half the year [physical health] and the other half mental health and positive psychology.”

Both students and teachers recognize the need to combat the stigma surrounding mental health.

“It starts with spreading awareness. It’s okay to have these feelings, you just need to know how to properly handle it. You don’t have to be happy all the time,” Hill said.

During college, health and science teacher Laura Braly experienced suicidal thoughts after undergoing a series of losses.

“I used to believe that if you talk about suicide a person would go home and kill themselves and I now know that if you talk about suicide it opens up the conversation,” Braly said. “It’s hiding it and it’s the stigma that is attributing to more and more suicides.”

According to TIME magazine, there has been a 37 percent increase in depression among teens since 2005.

Swam cautions that we need to be careful about jumping to conclusions concerning this statistic.

“We have to keep in mind that that increase could very well be attributed to the fact that we’re just better at diagnosing it now,” Swam said.

Despite this admonition, many feel that social media and an increased obsession with grades could be possible causes of this increase.

“Students have become very concerned with moment by moment grade changes. It’s like a stock. It’s going to go up and it’s going to go down,” Braly said.

A complex and sensitive topic, mental health concerns cannot be fleshed out overnight. As a school and a community, spreading awareness and conversation are the first steps.

“As far as Dulaney is concerned, I think we can always do a better job to continue to educate ourselves,” Swam said.