At a school board meeting in Killingly, Conn., one evening in March, a high school senior named Sydney Zicolella stood before the board and described her mental health history, which began in the sixth grade, when she was clinically depressed.
The editor of the newspaper at Killingly High School is the third of four children in a strict Christian family.
She told the board that many students were struggling. She had seen children walk out of counseling, hysterical, not wanting to go to the hospital, but also not wanting to be sad.
She said that it was not uncommon for friends to disappear for months, only to be found out that they were at a mental health hospital. She asked the board to approve the placement of a mental health clinic in the school as part of a push by the state to dramatically expand access to care for teenagers.
She knew it would be a long shot to get the board. Lisa didn't support the clinic because she was from the generation of toughing things out.
When she was in crisis, Lisa scoured northeastern Connecticut in search of a therapist who would take her insurance, but she was worried that school-based therapists would end up advising teens on matters like gender identity or birth control.
Lisa believes there is a lot of agenda out there. Children are able to change their behavior.
Killingly has been divided since January when Robert J. Angeli presented a plan to open a mental health clinic in the high school.
The legislation to expand Connecticut's network of school-based clinics passed the legislature by a vote of 142 to 4. The plan that Mr. Angeli presented to the Board of Education ran into a wall of resistance due to the fact that it violated the rights of parents.
The plan was rejected by a vote of 6 to 3. Dozens of supporters of the clinic filed a complaint with the Connecticut Board of Education.
Killingly's school board meetings have become a battleground for differing views on mental health. Teenagers picketed on the well-manicured town common, where petunias grow around a memorial to the Civil War dead, with signs that read "14.7 Percent have made a suicide plan" and "Listen to your children about mental health."
Mental health advocates watch standoffs cautiously. Both political parties wanted to improve the mental health of children during the Pandemic. Studies suggest that school-based services can reduce suicidal behavior and substance abuse.
According to Inseparable, a mental health policy group, more than 30 states have considered expanding school-based services over the last year. The services need to be accepted by American communities before they reach students.
Killingly is an outlier in Connecticut, which has more than 100 school based health clinics. Lawmakers and conservative activists have targeted mental health curriculum in several states, often taking aim at social and emotional learning programs. In Indiana and Oklahoma, there are bills that limit the use of SEL in the classroom.
The staff from Generations Family Health Center, a nonprofit health care group that was to provide services in the school, were introduced to the visitors.
There was a plan for therapists from Generations to work on the third floor. Therapy sessions would be scheduled during school hours and students could be referred by teachers. There would be no cost to the school or the families if therapists bill insurance based on a sliding fee scale.
There was a chill in the room as the board members started asking questions. The visitors smiled a lot.
Is it a good idea for students to be advised on contraceptives or abortion? They wouldn't give medical advice, but might talk about it. Would children be forced to do therapy if they were referred? It's no. Students would be exposed to ridicule and stigma if peers saw them in treatment. It's hoped that not. They might be able to get therapy without their parents knowing.
It was the answer. Under a narrow set of circumstances, clinicians in Connecticut can provide six sessions of mental health treatment to minor children without their parents' consent.
In the nearby town of Putnam, which has hosted a school-based mental health clinic for nine years, no child has ever been treated without parental permission.
The arrangement would give a student a lot more access to counseling without the need for parental approval, but Norm Ferron, one of the Killingly board members, didn't like that.
He said he had heard enough to make his decision.
He said that he wouldn't make it easier for children to go around their parents. I don't think we should be helping a kid to walk into a mental health facility in a school and say, "I'm thinking about an abortion, let's talk about that,' without the parents knowing."
Killingly's school board has cast itself as a bulwark against liberalism and government intrusion. Several of its members were elected in 2020, amid popular outrage over a decision to retire the school's mascot, the Redmen, at the urging of a student group. The mascot was voted back on by the board after the election.
Those divisions have been reopened by the proposed mental health clinic.
A school board member said at a meeting that a therapist used to talk to her teenaged son because they wanted someone to talk to them. The man said that Sigmund Freud used drugs while writing his thesis and that Karl Jung used spirit guides.
Some people in this community feel like they are being warily watched.
When his mother was taken to a state mental hospital, Golob said his view of psychiatrists changed. Killingly has a lot of people receiving mental health treatment, but he doesn't want his kids exposed to it. He said he would remove his children from the school immediately if a clinic were in the school.
The vehemence of the opposition to the clinic has shocked one of the board members who supports the idea. He wasn't prepared for the idea that we would have this long, drawn-out experience.
Mr. Viens said in an interview that there was a fear that something about their belief system was under attack. They seem to believe that they have to stop it here. You don't cross this line.
The school board did not comment for this article.
On the night that the Board of Education voted down the mental health center, Ms. Zicolella was working at a Mexican restaurant.
A mother from the school came up to the cash register to tell her about the vote.
It was crazy that it made such a commotion.
Mental health was a topic that was discussed with frankness. She said that many of them struggled after a number of deaths in the school community when they were seventh graders. She was diagnosed with anxiety disorders in high school.
She said knowing what's happening in your head helps you deal with those things. When she was a senior, her classmates were open about their diagnoses. She said that they considered it part of their identity.
Jen Simpson, 28, said she listens to teenage customers who come in to her salon, BeautyHaus, and is startled by their discussion of anxiety and trauma, a vocabulary she assumed they had picked up from social media.
Do you worry about your teen? There are a few things you can do to help if you are worried about your teen's mental health. The chief medical officer of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has some suggestions.
There are changes to be looked for. It's a good idea to notice changes in sleeping and eating habits in your teen, as well as any issues he or she might be having at school. They used to love doing things, but now they don't. Keep an eye on their social media posts.
Communication lines should be kept open. Start a conversation if you see something strange. Your child may not want to speak. If that's the case, give him or her help in finding a trusted person to talk to.
Professional support is something you should seek. A child who expresses suicidal thoughts may benefit from treatment. You can begin by talking to your child's doctor.
Do not leave your child alone in an emergency. If you want to prevent suicides, call a hotline. If you have potentially lethal objects, lock them up. The closest emergency room is where children who are trying to harm themselves should go.
These resources can offer guidance if you are worried about someone in your life. There is a national suicide prevention hotline that you can call. The crisis text line is 741741. The foundation is dedicated to suicide prevention.
She said that when she was in high school, mental health was not a topic of discussion.
She said that she gets prom girls coming in for spray tans and that they are a different breed of person. I see a lot of people with marks from self- harming.
There are 157 schools in the state with the highest unmet needs.
According to a survey of Killingly students conducted by the Southeastern Regional Action Council, almost 30% of them had considered self-destructive behavior. The results are in line with findings from other communities, according to the associate director.
Some board members have doubts about the findings. Do you know if they were honest? At a board meeting in March, the chairwoman of the board said that they were dealing with children. Ms Joly stepped down from the board.
For decades, substance abuse and suicide were topics addressed by priests or pastors in Killingly, a blue-collar, predominantly white former mill town. The approach has failed older generations according to a senior who has advocated for the clinic.
She thinks the older generations struggled with mental illness but didn't get help. I don't think that's a good idea. They are going to snap if you try to ignore it or tell someone to shove it down.
Ms. Zicolella conducted a survey at the school newspaper and found that the clinic was supported by the majority of the population. She was surprised to see which students were at the protest, because they ranged across the political spectrum.
It was difficult for them to talk about it. When students heard about the problem, they were like, hold on, why are we treating it like a taboo?
The school board meetings became more emotional as the spring went on, with students and parents making public appeals in favor of the clinic.
In late May, a local real estate agent, Judith Cournoyer, stepped up to the podium. Her son was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder at a young age.
She described the patients she saw while visiting him on locked wards as young people with scars from self- harm orlithering on the floor.
She hoped the Board of Education would listen to her story. I would like the powers that be to pay attention. There is a need for mental healthcare in the school. A board member wiped away tears.
The community was at a stalemate with both sides waiting for the state to make a decision.
According to advocates of the clinic, Killingly's needs are especially extreme, and that its board has persistently rejected additional services, imposing "its own extreme political views in a way that undermines the educational interest of the state."
According to the board's legal team, communities cannot be forced to accept a school-based mental health clinic if they don't want one, and the school already has an array of resources for student mental health.
The board says that the statues give elected local officials the discretion to make such decisions.
The state is expected to make a recommendation in the near future.
She hopes to get a four-year degree and a career in journalism once she graduates.
She learned a lot from speaking at the school board.
She could see from the reaction of some of the school board members that she had not said anything. She might have been able to open her mother's mind a bit, but her father wouldn't budge.
She said that the experience has changed her perspective on a lot of things in her town. It made her see Killingly differently. She thought about the future when she said she would go into places of power in politics when she was her age.
She said things are going to be different.