Pisciottano chairs roundtable discussion on improving mental health for high school students

HARRISBURG, March 3 – State Rep. Nick Pisciottano, D-Allegheny, brought together school professionals, mental health advocates, human services professionals and legislators for a discussion on how resources can be allocated to better serve Pennsylvania students, during a PA House Democratic Policy Committee hearing today.

Strengthening teachers and support staff was a natural part of the discussion that highlighted how the pandemic has exacerbated existing systemic issues with providing services to students, teachers and staff.

“Our high school students have had to overcome so many challenges during the pandemic, including virtual schooling, a lack of real social interaction and constant disruptions to daily life during the most turbulent periods of growing up. It’s imperative we do all we can to support their mental health needs as they mature into young adults,” Pisciottano said. “This policy hearing was very helpful in hearing from a variety of experts on how state and local officials can best help students and work with our schools to give them the tools they need moving forward.”

Michael Fiore, school social worker/home and school visitor for Council Rock School District, and Dr. Mike Ghilani, superintendent of West Jefferson Hills School District, shared the struggles students face and their efforts to make swift changes to policies and procedures that have had lifesaving impacts on students. Ghilani shared a tragic case of a student who died by suicide during a time when COVID-19 brought schools to a close.

Shalawn James from the Pennsylvania Mental Health Consumers Association explained that many students are at a loss for what they are feeling and that marketing and social media campaigns should be executed to help students know it’s okay to not be okay.

“Kids are struggling because they know they aren’t excelling and they don’t know what to do with that pressure,” James said.

Laverne Krill, guidance counselor at West Mifflin Area School District, affirmed the increase in mental health concerns with students in upper elementary and middle school levels. Krill highlighted food insecurity and economic worries all play a role in student stressors. Progress and learning development are simply not happening, as Valerie Zanotti shared that children in February and March are developmentally where they were in September.

Christina Paternoster, project director at Pennsylvania Parent & Family Alliance testified that parents are scared, and children are struggling. She also highlighted rural communities have limited social supports as waiting lists for services remain long.

Dr. Perri Rosen with the Department of Human Services shared that statewide data on the pandemic’s impact on student health is still being compiled and assessed but highlighted that student assistance programs and collaborative efforts with community liaisons, DHS and the Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs to connect students and families with community and state services.

When asked for potential solutions, Keith Elders of the Pennsylvania Peer Support Coalition pitched a creative mobile element that could connect students, allowing them to engage with one another -- including over the summer -- on a platform they are already comfortable with.

The committee will continue to work with community partners, state agencies, and school and mental health professionals to aggregate resources and develop innovative solutions for the wellbeing of Pennsylvania’s children and the professionals responsible for their education.

Video and testimony from today’s hearing is available at www.pahouse.com/policy.