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Weehawken Schools after-hours counseling expands mental health services for students

At the time of the layoff, as classrooms empty and hallways quiet at Weehawken High School, counselor Rosmery Veras sticks around.

It’s not just about ending your day and getting ready for the next one. That’s the time she planned to spend with students, in person or virtually, as part of a new district initiative to increase counselor hours after the layoff.

The after-hours counseling program, intended to expand mental health-related support services for students, began in October and has already proven popular among students, staff members said. It is currently available four days a week in high school and one day a week at Theodore Roosevelt School for students in grades three through six.

Between the two high school counselors who each hold after-hours counseling sessions twice a week, there are about 30 additional students served each week, Veras said.

“The demand was not met,” she said. “That’s kind of how we met our students where they were.”

Students and staff see several benefits from both the schedule and the flexible nature of the program.

After-school availability not only means a student doesn’t have to miss class to attend, but their attendance is less visible. As much as conversations about mental health normalize, high school is high school, and students, especially those who may need counseling the most, may not want their peers to know they’re attending, said the staff and students.

“It was nice to see how some of the kids you never see day to day showed up after (council) school, and you start to wonder what the difference is,” Veras said. “That’s really the difference: they maintain their confidentiality.”

Some students also prefer to talk to a counselor from the comfort and perhaps the privacy of their home, she said.

And depending on a student’s schedule with extracurricular activities or family obligations, the virtual option can mean the difference between being able to attend counseling or not.

Advisors also see the benefit, Veras said.

School days are often filled with meetings and emergencies, and counseling students may have to deal with interruptions, she said. There are only so many hours in the school day, and sometimes there are so many requests for counselors that students form a line outside the office, said Marissa Dennis, administrator of the school council.

After-hours counseling means being able to keep up with demand, and Veras said she and her colleague are more than willing to work overtime, for which they are paid with stipends.

The program itself was implemented approximately one month after staff and school board members conceptualized this late August, said Dennis.

“It’s really the merit of the team from top to bottom,” she said. “It’s a neighborhood that cares so much about the students.”

Weehawken prioritized programming around student mental health before the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated many existing mental health issues among young people, Superintendent Eric Crespo said, but she has also strengthened since.

It hosts a monthly lecture series on mental health topics, open to families, and offers teachers and community members a Mental Health First Aid course. Students receive a wellness survey each marking period and will have access to therapy dogs at school.

“We saw this as a major initiative and a major topic for our students to succeed in life and in their studies,” Crespo said.

Dennis, a licensed psychoanalyst, said she’s been impressed with the conversations about student mental health she’s been involved in since joining the board this year.

“It was really special to see how the district responded to the need and really opened doors for students to have more access to services,” she said. “I think it’s quite unique.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has been shown to contribute to a decline in young people’s mental health, which was already considered a crisis.

While Weehawken High School’s three full-time counselors provide support for the college application process, they also support students as they navigate difficult relationships and their place in a changing world.

“Students are always worried about the future and what the future holds and the uncertainty of the future,” Veras said. “We also see this often in our sessions, students are overthinking.”

Sophomore Cassandra Gonzalez said she became passionate about mental health after going to therapy several years ago and realizing she might want to become a therapist herself. Now she runs a mental health club in high school to open conversations among students on the subject and educate her peers.

She believes the school has been successful in balancing academic priorities and student mental health, but that student initiatives like hers can support that progress.

Student Council President Olivia Fanders agreed that the school successfully prioritizes mental health. The stigma surrounding mental health issues persists, however, and she said opportunities for students to talk to each other about these challenges, not just with adults, could help combat this.

“It needs to be integrated into our whole learning system,” she said.

Those behind the after-hours counseling initiative hope it can become a model for other school districts.

“I think this is our best bet to really help as many students as we can reach,” Dennis said. “It’s always very difficult to be a teenager or to be a student or a child.”

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