On a recent February morning, Eliza, a student at Amherst Regional High School in Amherst, Massachusetts, walked down the school hallway. Accompanied by a school social worker, Eliza discussed some of her favorite books and TV shows, and when she ran into a teacher she hadn’t seen in several weeks, she got excited. .

There were no hugs due to COVID-19, so Eliza just jumped up and down. (The NEPM uses only students’ first names to protect their medical confidentiality.)

“Oh my god, that’s my amazing Chinese teacher! I love him so much!” said Eliza. “She’s so cool. I had it for all four years.”

Psychiatric hospitalizations have increased in the United States for adolescents struggling with suicidal ideation and other mental health issues. But after leaving the hospital, teenagers face an often daunting prospect: returning to school.

Eliza’s outgoing personality belies what has been a difficult few years for her and for many high school students. She is part of a cohort of students who struggled with anxiety and depression before 2020, and whose challenges have only grown amid the pandemic. This winter, Eliza was hospitalized following a suicide attempt.

“It can be really overwhelming being in school, Eliza said.

A unique classroom

When Eliza returned to her high school, she didn’t go to her regular classes. Instead, she went straight to a classroom that is home to Bridge for Resilient Youth in Transition (BRYT), a program designed to help students return to school after prolonged absences due to mental health issues. .

“When I came back after being hospitalized for two weeks, BRYT was a place where I could kind of readjust from the hospital and get back into school,” she said.

This was the second time that BRYT played a significant role in Eliza’s life.

“At the end of my first year, I tried to kill myself, then once I recovered, the following year, they put me in the program so that I could have more support,” said- she declared.

Amherst’s BRYT classroom has a smooth feel. There is often quiet music from a radio. The scent of peppermint escapes from an infuser. In one corner there is a door leading to a small sunny greenhouse where the students can relax. When participating students return to school for the first time after an extended medical absence, they often spend entire days in a BRYT classroom, doing homework, resting or talking to counsellors.

“If I hadn’t taken the BRYT program after the first year, I don’t think I could say I would be alive today,” Eliza said.

BRYT has partnerships with over 200 high schools in seven states. In addition to Amherst, other schools in western Massachusetts host versions of the program, including Holyoke High School and Frontier Regional High School in South Deerfield.

BRYT classrooms often have a clinician and academic coordinator who work together to develop an individualized plan with each student. The goal is to gradually bring children back to their full lesson schedule, a process that typically takes one to three months.

Karen Peters, a social worker, has served as clinical director for BRYT in Amherst since the program began in 2014. The program currently serves 26 students.

“Our goal here is to really provide an anchor for students so that when they experience high levels of distress, they don’t stay home,” Peters said.

High school dropout rates among students with mental illness are significantly higher than those of the general student population. A 2017 study of Canadian teens found that students struggling with depression were twice as likely to drop out as their peers without mental illness.

For Peters, it is a priority to give children a place to feel comfortable while they are at school.

“Without us, these are children who would come out of the building,” she said. “These are children who would end up alone in the bathroom.”

When Eliza approached Peters with a notebook in hand, Peters offered to accompany her to class.

“This is your journal for PE class, isn’t it?” Peters asked Elisa. “Do you want me to go down with you today since it’s your first day going?”

Eliza has happily agreed to have Peters’ company, and she’s not alone.

Sounding the alarm on youth mental health

In November, the US Surgeon General issued an advisory sounding the alarm about the many ways the pandemic has worsened national youth mental health trends that were escalating even before 2020.

“In 2019, one in three high school students and half of female students reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness, an overall increase of 40% from 2009,” the notice said.

Dr. Barry Sarvet, chair of Baystate Health’s department of psychiatry, said feelings of hopelessness among young people have increased further during the pandemic and remain high.

“We see an increase in the frequency of suicidal presentations in adolescent girls as well as in boys,” Sarvet said. “And then we see a lot of anxiety. Children who have panic attacks, children who are extremely overwhelmed with fear and [kids who are] also have difficulty with avoidance behaviors, such as refusing school, and being afraid to go to school.

A year ago, an unprecedented number of young people in mental health crisis were presenting to Baystate’s pediatric emergency department in Springfield, Massachusetts. Some children had to wait a month or more to be placed in psychiatric hospitals.

In a recent interview, Sarvet said the situation has improved, partly thanks to two new youth psychiatric units in the area, but the children are still arriving.

“We still don’t have as many beds as we need,” Servant said. “For example, today we have nine children in our pediatric emergency department waiting for some sort of placement.”

Not too long ago, one of those kids who needed a placement was a high school student named Molly.

Last spring, after an overdose of prescription drugs, Molly spent four days in the emergency room. Next, she was placed in an adult psychiatric ward, as that is where providers had located an open bed. Molly asked to be moved to a teen unit, but there was no room.

“I really wanted to change [locations]because it really traumatized me and really scared me,” she said.

Molly, who started high school in Amherst, was previously hospitalized in her sophomore year. During this period, she formed close ties with Peters and the BRYT program. Eventually, she and her family decided that a change would be good, and she enrolled in another high school in the area, one without mental health resources like BRYT. After the last hospitalization, Molly returned to Amherst.

“I knew the BRYT program was there, and I knew I had Karen, and I was like, ‘I want to go back to Amherst, because I need more support than I’m getting,'” a she declared.

Molly told BRYT that her mental health is really appreciated and that she’s been working on coping skills with Peters, especially how important it is not to bottle up your emotions. Things are getting better and better. She is even enrolled in a course at Holyoke Community College.

“It’s a communication class,” Molly said. “So yeah, I’m excited about it.”

Not enough of a good thing

The demand for this level of mental health support has skyrocketed since the start of the pandemic. Last May, 150 schools were BRYT partners. There are now 230 schools serving about 6,000 students, depending on the program.

Peters is happy with the flexibility of her class, where students can even get credit for their participation (not all BRYT partner schools offer students credit). For Peters, BRYT isn’t just about getting kids back on track in school.

“When I come downstairs and see a group of kids around a table playing a game of cards, kids who are in different social circles, or kids who will say, ‘I’m not going anywhere,’ and they are all around the same table – it sounds like medicine to me,” she said.

The success of the BRYT model, however, poses challenges.

“The need for mental health support is so great that there has been a lot of pressure on these programs to work with more children with a wider range of needs and a wider range of acuity,” Paul said. Hyry-Dermith, director of the Massachusetts-based organization.

He said the students BRYT serves require intensive support, and BRYT’s classrooms and clinicians are not intended to meet the mental health needs of an entire school.

“I think everyone should have the opportunity to go here,” said Rob, a sophomore who has been attending BRYT since last year, when he struggled to return to the school in person. after months of distance learning. “I think it’s healthy.”

Rob suffers from anxiety and depression, and is prone to isolation. He is one of a growing number of students that Amherst’s BRYT program is supporting before their situation gets so bad they need to be hospitalized.

“I usually go here in the morning, just [to] check in,” Rob said.

Peters helps Rob set his daily priorities and take his own emotional temperature. She said some days it’s all he can do to get out of bed.

“Rob is also a terrific athlete,” she added. “He’s a hockey player. His art will blow your mind.

Peters then turned to Rob.

“I’m so proud of you. You work really hard to get here every day,” she said.

Rob didn’t quite smile at the compliment, he just nodded and took a deep breath.

“I’m not really looking forward to going to school,” he says, “but whenever I have a tough day, I look forward to it, because I have people talk about everything I’m going through. ”

If all goes according to plan, Rob, Molly, and Eliza will spend fewer hours in the BRYT class as their spring term progresses, but Peters made one thing clear: they’re always welcome.

This story is a production of the New England News Collaborative. It was originally published by New England Public Media.