‘It’s okay to seek help’ for mental illness in NA schools

Before reading this story — stop for a moment after this sentence and think about what your overall experience was like in school, up to the 12th grade. Go ahead — give it a few minutes if you need.

When I stopped to think — a lot of good memories flooded back. And then it hit me — just how different would high school have been had I somewhere to turn when I was deeply depressed? For me, it was 1988 through most of 1992 — and there were absolutely no resources for anyone experiencing mental-health issues, though looking back, there should have been.

Regardless, today’s students definitely face more than what we faced back in the day — whether it’s on social media, text messages, you name it. Back then, mental health wasn’t even an issue for most — and if it were, it was rarely talked about at all, whether with teachers, friends, family.

But it’s a known issue now — and it reaches far beyond something as basic as biological depression … to any kind kind of addiction and so much more. Yet not everyone realizes — help is available and those affected by mental illness … well, they just aren’t alone.

And of course, what the North Arlington school district did just recently was even more amazing than one could imagine when it hosted a district-wide Stigma Free Wellness Fair. We’ll get to the history of how the event came to be, but before that, Stephen Yurchak, superintendent of the NA School District, says the stigma-free day was a no-brainer.

“Our message is simple: It’s okay to seek help,” he said. “Fundamentally, we want our students, staff, parents and community members to understand that it is okay to feel sad, anxious or angry, as long as they communicate these feelings in a healthy manner.”

The superintendent says it’s essential to communicate those feelings. In fact, saying something is the only way to go.

“Those who suffer from mental illness and do not seek help are likely to encounter many obstacles along the way, such as alcohol or substance abuse, dropping out of school, unemployment, homelessness or suicide,” Yurchak said. “We want to let our children and community know that North Arlington Public Schools, in coordination with the North Arlington Health Department, has the resources available to offer assistance and guidance to those in need. We’re all here to help.”

So how does the district help?

It’s multi-faceted, Yurchak says.

“Our teachers certainly understand the importance of such an initiative and seized the opportunity to further educate our children about this topic,” he said. “A lot of what we were able to share within our schools came from organic conversations about common concerns like anxiety and stress. We are fortunate to have a staff that is passionate about not only teaching students content-based lessons, but empowering them with life-lessons as well. It was encouraging to hear discussions among our students at different grade levels, because everyone was learning more about what it means to be ‘Stigma-Free.’”

So why here and why now?

“During the 2017-2018 school year, our Supervisor of Curriculum and Instruction (9-12  Samantha Rodriguez started to explore opportunities to bring mental health awareness and resources to the greater school community,” Yurchak said. “With this in mind, the North Arlington Board of Education established the district-wide goal of adopting Stigma-Free initiatives that would bring mental health to the forefront.

“Entering the 2018-2019 school year, we established a Stigma-Free Task Force comprised of various community members and district employees. Our primary goal was to foster collaboration amongst staff, students, parents, board members, and borough officials. By bringing together a diverse group of stakeholders, we were able create a team that overflowed with enthusiasm and great ideas about how to establish several sustainable initiatives that could be introduced during May, which happens to be Mental Health Awareness Month.

“After consulting with other school districts and the Bergen County Department of Health Services, the Stigma-Free Task Force was able to establish several best practices that were recently rolled out to our entire community. Our Community Health, Wellness and Safety Fair was essentially our way of highlighting the resources we can share to achieve complete wellness. We wanted participants to talk about comprehensive health in a space filled with friends and neighbors.”

And that’s exactly what happened — and why the day was so successful. In fact, there’s already talk about a similar event next year — and the year after that — and the year after that.

“Samantha Rodriguez and our Stigma-Free Task Force did an amazing job this year by bringing North Arlington Public Schools and the entire Borough together as a designated Stigma-Free Zone,” Yurchak said. “The Stigma-Free Task Force will continue to meet next year. We’re all anxious to see the wonderful ideas brought to the table, as we continue to offer support to those with mental illness.”

Learn more about the writer ...

Kevin A. Canessa Jr. is the editor of and broadcaster at The Observer, a place where he has served on and off since 2006. He is responsible for the editorial content of the newspaper and website, the production of the e-Newspaper, writing several stories per week (including the weekly editorial), conducting live broadcasts on Facebook Live, including a weekly recap of the news — and much more behind the scenes. Between 2006 and 2008, he introduced the newspaper to its first-ever blog — which included podcasts, audio and video. Originally from Jersey City, Kevin lived in Kearny until 2004, lived in Port St. Lucie. Florida, for four years until February 2016 and in March of that year, he moved back to West Hudson to return to The Observer full time. Click Here to send Kevin an email.