Yariann Galindo, a junior at Liberty High School in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, knows he doesn’t have to go far these days to find a comfort zone.
“If I’m having a bad day, I can always stop by and visit room 220,” Galindo said.
Liberty High is taking an in-house approach to helping its students deal with the stressful life of teenagers. The Bethlehem Area School District is in year two of a six-year plan to have therapists and social workers staffed at the school. So far, the district has spent $700,000 for the ambitious plan to help students before they lash out or get too depressed.
District Superintendent Joseph Roy said the model for decades when dealing with troubled youth was to cast them out of school.
“They act out in school, they have a short fuse, and then we discipline them and punish them or have them arrested,” Roy said. “And then they’re in the juvenile justice system. That’s just adding to the trauma.”
In the short time Liberty has provided mental health resources to students inside the school, requests to see mental health staffers have increased, Roy said.
“If we can do it at Liberty, I think it’s a model for the state,” Roy said. “And then it’s a model for all of our other schools, which are smaller than Liberty.”
Roughly one in five school-age kids have a mental health condition, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
Nicole Parra, a guidance counselor at Liberty, said being a teenager is difficult for all young people, especially those one in five also dealing with a mental health condition.
“They struggle not just mentally and emotionally, but they struggle socially. They struggle academically,” Parra said. “And overall, it is really difficult for them to manage.”
Liberty Principal Harrison Bailey believes more funding is needed, though he acknowledges that many schools don’t have the resources to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on non-academic initiatives.
“Unfortunately, schools are just not funded in a way that allow them to provide the services that they need,” Bailey said. “So we’re in dire need for our state, our state government and our federal government, for that matter, to step up to the plate and say, we know that this is a problem.”
Liberty High sophomore Kiara Carrion said the new initiative has already prevented her from getting into some trouble.
“I’ve been put in certain situations with other students and I would come to her office, or she’ll call me up at the perfect time,” Carrion said of Liberty’s school-based therapist, Robin Carmody. “(I) put her on the situation and then she’ll stop me from doing something really stupid.”
Digital editor Brian X. McCrone contributed writing to this report.