Ava had always felt comfortable at the small, private K-8 school she attended just north of Boston, but in high school everything changed. Ava first began to experience anxiety and depression after her parents divorced when she was still in grade school. These problems increased as she entered her teen years, and became even more severe in ninth grade, when she enrolled at Cambridge Rindge & Latin School, a vast campus with nearly 2,000 students. Faced with large, noisy classrooms, Ava froze with fear; by her sophomore year, she felt unable to cope. She began to miss two or three days of school a week; then in April of that year, she stopped attending altogether. Ava’s physician suggested she look into BRYT, or Bridge for Resilient Youth in Transition, which helps students return to school after extended mental health-related absences. Ava, now a junior, was skeptical at first. But eventually she agreed to transition back to school while spending one period a day in the program’s dedicated classroom, where she received emotional and psychological support and assistance catching up on the schoolwork she’d missed.
Ava was fortunate. As many as one in five children need help with a mental health condition such as anxiety or depression. These students often have trouble processing information or focusing, which can contribute to a cycle of increased anxiety, dropping grades and missed school, say experts. Yet schools typically lack the money and staff to help students cope with what experts describe as a mental health epidemic. One study found that nearly 80 percent of students failed to receive the mental health care they needed, and more than 50 percent of students ages 14 and older with emotional and behavioral disabilities drop out of school.
Absent a national blueprint for helping students cope with mental health conditions, states are scrambling to identify potential prototypes. The BRYT program, which was founded and pioneered in a Boston-area school in 2004 by the nonprofit Brookline Center for Community Mental Health, has emerged as a successful model for helping kids re-enter school after a mental health crisis. The Brookline Center works with school districts to help them plan and implement BRYT programs, which are staffed by school employees. Although the center doesn’t finance programs, it helps schools identify potential sources of funding.
Ninety percent of students in BRYT remain on track to graduate, and their attendance rates have increased from 52 percent before participation to above 80 percent after. The program itself is expanding. BRYT’s director, Paul Hyry-Dermith, said 137 schools in Massachusetts now employ the program and pilots are starting to roll out in Rhode Island, New York and New Hampshire. Partnerships are also in the works with school districts in Washington state and Oregon.
At Cambridge Rindge & Latin, eleven students spend one assigned period a day in the BRYT classroom, where they chat with counselors, prepare for and work on homework assignments with the program’s academic liaison, or simply rest and relax. Students are also welcome in the room any time they feel overwhelmed.
“Many of the kids in our program are coming out of a psychiatric hospitalization,” said Ashley Sitkin, BRYT clinician/program leader at Rindge & Latin. “Some of the kids haven’t been hospitalized but they’ve missed a lot of school because they’ve gotten stuck in this avoidance cycle, which is really common for kids who struggle with anxiety and depression.”
At Rindge & Latin, Sitkin and her colleague, academic coordinator Nkrumah Jones, disrupt that cycle with a three-to-four-month reintegration plan that includes emotional support and mental care coordination. That includes a clinical diagnosis of students before they enter the program, and constant contact with outside health providers who also provide each student with care. Sitkin and her staff also reach out to parents and keep them informed. Academic coordination is crucial, too. Both BRYT coordinators and teachers acknowledge it is unrealistic to expect students who miss weeks of school to make up all class work, so care coordinators serve as a liaison between student and teacher, indentifying key assignments and ironing out a make-up plan.
At Rindge & Latin, the mental health challenges students contend with have become more severe in recent years. Student suicide is a growing worry. Several students attempted suicide this semester, teachers and staff said. That’s part of a national trend. The suicide rate for children and young adults rose by 56 percent from 2007 and 2017 and is now the second leading cause of death among teenagers, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. Some 3,000 high school students across the U.S. attempt suicide every day.
Sitkin emphasized that BRYT is a short-term stabilization model. She agrees with Vaillancourt Strobach — schools need to be better equipped to help students cope with social-emotional issues when they’re younger, before the problems grow. Only focusing on students in crisis is unsustainable, she said. Sitkin, referring to herself, said, “Ten Ashleys can help 100 more students, but it’s not going to solve the problem. But how do we help the majority of students who also have struggles? There are always going to be those students.”
But for struggling students like Ava at Rindge & Latin, the help they receive at school can alter the course of their lives. “BRYT is a miracle worker in a way. I wasn’t going to finish high school,” said Ava. “It’s about being here and being OK.”
Boston Tutoring Services
If you or someone you know may be struggling with mental health, there is help and there is hope. Contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741.