It is unnerving to hear the two social workers at Oak Park’s Percy Julian Middle School tell the District 97 school board that they are observing a startling increase in the number of students expressing thoughts of self-harm or suicidal ideation.

Carolyn Doyle, an 11-year veteran of the district, said last month that she had met with eight students in the last two weeks who had contemplated suicide. Two of those students were hospitalized. Nathan Murawski, Julian’s other social worker, said that, so far this school year, he has seen 22 students who “presented self-harm to the point they were hospitalized.” Through all of the last school year he had seven such cases.

That’s why an administration plan to expand mental health services through a dozen new fall hires is compelling despite the $1 million price tag. The district said an expected increase in state school funding will offset about 40 percent of the cost increase.

Among those hired, after expected board approval later this week, will be four additional social workers, one psychologist, three interventionists, and four special ed teachers. 

The social workers who testified before the school board on April 24 said that, in addition to the ongoing services their colleagues provide to special ed students, they are seeing a surge of students from the general population who are experiencing mental and emotional health issues. “[Students are] accessing our services at unsustainable rates,” said Doyle. 

For some combination of complex reasons, this is a new moment. Stress levels in our children are rising and being felt at earlier ages. Also, we are increasingly attuned to mental health issues as the stigma of acknowledging emotional distress lessens for both individuals and for families. 

Schools are inevitably on the front line in identifying mental health issues. If we are building trusting environments, it is good news that young people are reaching out to caring, skilled adults for help. Even as families involve outside mental health professionals, the intersection of family, school and therapy will be a crucial one. 

New spending by taxpayer-supported schools rightly deserves scrutiny. But certainly we expect school leadership to be focused on the changing and critical needs of students and to be responsive as D97 has been in this case.

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