A community in crisis: Darien BOE seeks to solve the mental health problem


DARIEN, CT – As the Darien community continues to mourn the sudden death of a third Darien High School student in the past two months, the district school board is trying to find solutions on how to deal with mental health in the short term and into the future.

On May 21, Hayden Thorsen, a 16-year-old sophomore at DHS died suddenly. On March 31, 17-year-old Matthew McEvoy also died suddenly. School officials said both boys died by suicide.

On April 12, 16-year-old Henry Farmer died of medical complications.

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The Darien School Board held its regular meeting on Tuesday and discussed how to move forward.

“Our community has been deeply shaken by these tragedies, and in speaking to professionals, friends and medical professionals, we need to realize that we are a community in crisis,” said school board chair David Dineen. “We have an immediate need for our students, family and staff. We will build a plan around this and for the end of the school year which is fast approaching.

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“We will review what our needs for students and the community are over the summer and set out a plan for the new school year,” Dineen added. “The start of the school year needs to be different from what it traditionally looked like before.”

Dineen said that being number one in the state in academics or athletics, or being recognized as a leader in music and theater, “all of that means nothing if anxiety, stress , the pressure and culture to constantly compete and win break down the mental and physical health of our students and lead to suicides.

“That’s a hard word to hear,” Dineen added. “That’s a hard word to understand.”

Some students who spoke at the meeting said they felt the district’s response to the latest tragedy was lackluster when school resumed on Monday, and that the proper support systems were not in place to help students move forward.

Olivia Punihill, a student representative on the school board, told the board she had heard from several students who “worried they might have to put their emotions on hold to prepare for exams.”

Punihill said the prioritization and pressure of doing well in school has now led to students not prioritizing their own mental health. She also said teachers and coaches were unprepared for how to handle the situation on Monday and there was no comprehensive approach.

“The students felt like they were being tossed around from experience to experience without consistency, and that’s part of the reason why they didn’t feel comforted throughout the day,” Punihill said. “Most students don’t watch these meetings. Most students don’t see the behind-the-scenes process, and all the considerations that go into how they’re counseled. They just see the product, and what they know at the moment is that the product is not enough and does not reassure them.”

Miller Ward, a Grade 10 student, said each student death had an “aggravating effect” on her mental health.

“We need more resources and outlets, the ones that are the fabric of our culture, not add-ons,” she said. “Matthew and Hayden deserved more than the school provided us for mental health, and everyone who knew Matthew, Henry and Hayden needs the resources we weren’t able to provide these boys now more than ever. .Since what we’ve been doing so far hasn’t worked for them, it won’t work for future students.”

Dr. Scott McCarthy, a district special services and special education administrator who is trained as a psychologist, said the district is experiencing a “cluster of suicide deaths.”

“As mental health professionals, we know that a major risk factor in a community for a second suicide death is the completion of the first,” McCarthy explained. “Vulnerable students observing another student and their pain and a death by suicide have the potential to engender the same thoughts in another student who is in pain.”

As a result, McCarthy said advice on cluster management is “much more complex and nuanced.”

Dr. Jessica Welt, CEO and clinical director of the Child Guidance Center of Southern Connecticut, said it was normal, following an unexplained death and suicide in a young person, to want answers and to be called to action.

She recommended to the board that the district prioritize structure and normality for students in the postvention phase for the end of the school year and summer, while initiating and planning a suicide prevention program. more complete in the long term.

Welt also suggested the creation of a “school-based health center,” which would provide students with therapy services during their school day.

Darien Public Schools Superintendent Alan Addley mentioned the creation of a task force to help oversee larger mental health issues.

First selector Monica McNally said meetings have already been held with various community stakeholders on the idea.

“I think postvention is important, but planning for the future – we don’t want to stay in one place,” McNally said.

Board member Tara Wurm said she was frustrated with the lack of resources for students.

“I realized we were in crisis mode, and I hate that we are in crisis mode. But we also have to look at once we go into crisis mode, what resources are available to students because they say they’re not enough,” Wurm said. “If we look to other cities, we’re not doing what they’re doing.”

Wurm said she hopes the district won’t “drop the ball” on the issue.

“[I want to] make sure we do what we need to do for our students and our community,” she said.

You can see Tuesday’s school board meeting here.

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