GUILFORD — As a practicing English teacher at Piscataquis Community High School in Guilford, I place great emphasis on the use of logical structures to help my students make sense of the world around them. Among those logical structures and within greater civic life, one finds many different forms of hierarchy that are illustrated as pyramids. Whether these hierarchies are based upon educational competency as in Bloom’s Taxonomy, cultural and economic dominance in capitalist society, human potential in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs or some combination of the above, each of these pyramids requires the same fundamental base – the broad, strong foundation.

Yet, a growing number of our students in Maine lack the foundation most necessary for personal and intellectual growth – a sense of mental and emotional well-being. Regardless of whether increased screen time, less-stable home lives or the challenge of temporary or generational poverty are to blame, the net result is that many students come to school less ready to learn than in years past.

The 2018-2019 school year has ended and summer is now well underway. And, while for some it might conjure visions of vacations to the beach or to the lake, or quality time spent with family with ample opportunities to be out in nature, reality is different for many of our young people. Instead of enjoying quality time with loved ones, many families are grappling with opioid abuse, as Maine had the sixth highest opioid overdose death rate in 2017, and our current rate is still epidemic; instead of being allowed a break from the regular demands of daily life, one in five children in Maine is food insecure; instead of being able to feel confident that all of Maine’s children will be able to stay happy and healthy throughout every season, opportunities to access health care in our rural areas are declining. Suffice it to say that summer vacation does not indicate a relief of stress for many children; life continues on, and the same barriers to access and success follow our students outside the school year. In 2018 and 2019, Maine had the highest rate of diagnosed adolescent anxiety disorders in the nation, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and suicide was the second leading cause of death in Maine among people ages 15-34. In response to this mental health crisis, Maine’s schools are working to become trauma-informed, but this change needs to be led by experts.

School-based social workers can be the conduit year-round. Whether it is supporting low-income and homeless students through the McKinney-Vento programs over the summer, coordinating supplemental nutrition packages through the Summer Food Service programs, providing mental health referrals and restorative practices sessions for community building or simply checking in on our most vulnerable children to assure them that someone is always there for them, these traditionally under-appreciated mental health professionals are an essential piece of the essential public service that is education.

However, as it stands, professional emotional and mental health support is scarce. According to recent data published by the American Civil Liberties Union, Maine has a counselor-to-student ratio of 303 to 1, significantly above the current recommendation of 250 to 1. What is more, there are currently hundreds of vacancies for school-based social workers throughout the state of Maine, and there are also many schools that simply do not have school-based social workers on district staff because of underfunding. While all of Maine’s education professionals work hard to support students’ mental and emotional health, more manpower is needed to meet current needs.

All of our great structures require strong foundations – Maine’s students are no exception to that rule. Mental and emotional well-being are both crucial to initial knowledge and skills acquisition and integral to long-term retention. An increased number of school-based social workers can help us to build the most capable and resilient generation of young people possible and help them to summit their own individual pyramids.

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