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Portage Needs to Do More to Address the Mental Health Crisis

Portage Needs to Do More to Address the Mental Health Crisis

This article discusses the topic of mental health. If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health, do not hesitate to seek help. Contact social worker Emily Evans at [email protected], or call 988 for the National Suicide Prevention Hotline. 


It has been over four years since COVID-19 lockdowns began, and Portage Township Schools are still reeling from the effects of the pandemic. Canceled classes and activities led many to mourn what they lost, stay-at-home orders created feelings of loneliness for many, and pandemic layoffs and job cuts had led to many families facing financial hardship. Long after the lockdowns have lifted, many students, as well as teachers, have faced an increase of mental health issues. 


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“I’m noticing more isolation, much more isolation,” says Portage High School English and Speech teacher Jodi Newby, “During the pandemic, we were isolated, and so our only outlet was through our phones. We all sort of took comfort in our phones and those connections that we made through social media and our electronic connections. Once we went back in person and we were all wearing masks, we were still so disconnected from each other, and I think we haven’t recovered from that disconnect.”

On May 8, 2023, Newby gave a presentation to the Portage Township School Board as a thesis project for her graduate degree in liberal studies. The topic concerned the growing issue of a teacher shortage in schools across the country, and what can be done to resolve it here in Portage. The details of the presentation were never made public, until PHS’ weekly news and entertainment show INN featured a segment on it in November of 2023. Aidan Lineberry, a senior at PHS, had interviewed Newby on her presentation, as well as her accompanying research paper, in his series “Internet Culture.” Newby had cited many reasons for why teachers are resigning, as well as fewer college graduates pursuing the profession in the first place, one of which was the lack of mental health support in schools. 


In order to remedy this issue, Newby had suggested creating the role of a teacher retention specialist, someone who could work with teachers in order to solve any problems they may have instead of resorting to resignation. 


“I had to present my master’s thesis to them [the school board] as part of the master’s requirement. Mr. Stills was there, the school board was there, Dr. Alaniz was there, and at that meeting I suggested that the district invest in a teacher retention specialist.” (INN Films). 

Over a year after the presentation, Superintendent Dr. Amanda Alaniz has further contacted Newby about drafting a plan for a teacher retention program, suggesting that Portage might be hiring retention specialists within the next few years. However, much work needs to be done in order to ensure teachers receive adequate support. 


In a follow up interview, Newby discussed the increase of anxiety and depression among teachers since the COVID-19 pandemic began.


“Since COVID, there has been a 27 percent increase in clinical depression. Among teachers, there’s been a 37 percent increase in anxiety disorders.” she stated.

Additionally, Newby shared that nearly 40 to 50 percent of teachers leave their jobs within their first five years of employment, often due to burnout or issues with interpersonal development. 

Meanwhile, there has been an influx of mental health issues amongst students. According to a study done by the Centers for Disease Control, in 2021 42 percent of high school students reported feeling sad or hopeless enough to stop their usual activities for two weeks. This was a 14 percent increase from 2011 (US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). 


Looking around Portage High School, many have noticed a rise in emotional and behavior issues, both of which can be linked to mental health. Since in-person classes have resumed, there has been an increase of physical fights, risky behaviors, and a lack of motivation to excel in school. It is easy to dismiss these issues as simply “bad behavior,” but they are likely reflections of the negative emotions that students have been feeling. 


School social worker Emily Evans has noticed the influx of mental health issues among students since COVID-19. In this school year alone, Evans has had to make more outside referrals than ever before.


“This year alone, I have completed more referrals to outside agencies for community support than any other year, and waitlists for therapy services stretch months. Based on my observations with my current students, the lack of availability of accessible mental health services, and the cost of these services, have led students to choose negative coping skills, like drug/alcohol use, risky behavior, or social withdrawal – all of which lead to issues in school.” 


There are many effective actions that Portage can take to provide mental health support. For instance, schools should employ a more effective form of social-emotional learning, which is required by state law. Currently, Portage High School uses the Habitudes curriculum, which was designed to teach students valuable skills such as leadership, honesty, and perseverance. However, not everyone feels that Habitudes are effective, nor do they tend to the current needs of the students.


During the follow up interview with Ms. Newby, she expressed Habitudes appears to be geared towards professionals in the workforce rather than high school students and teenagers. 


“When the narrator guy is like ‘You leaders have to do blah, blah, blah!’ some of the conversation feels like it is geared towards teachers and, in general, people in the workforce than geared towards high school students.” Newby said. 


Instead of Habitudes, homerooms should implement activities that have been proven to boost mental wellbeing. According to Ellie Mental Health, these activities can include journaling, spending time in nature, reading, meditation, and making art (Ellie Mental Health).


In addition to mental health activities, Ms. Evans believes that Portage could benefit from having a few more social workers in order to expand access to mental health services. However, this would take some effort from those in power.  


“In general, I feel like PHS (and every school, ever) could benefit from having more than one mental health professional in the building, but resource constraints are very limiting in public schools and that does not currently appear to be an option,” Evans stated. “Creating a supportive, effective environment would probably involve collaboration between admin, teachers, and mental health professionals and modification of current policy to take into account the external factors that impact students every day.”

To address the mental and emotional needs of teachers, Newby suggested hiring a retention specialist who is trained in dealing with mental health issues. 


“I think it would be really cool if the teacher retention specialist could be sort of a combo duty. So in the position that I suggested, the teacher retention specialist would take on some duties of mental health, just trying to keep our teachers healthy both physically and mentally. That would translate into keeping their jobs.” 


If more attention was given in funding mental health services for teachers and students, many of the issues, such as behavioral problems and the teacher shortage, will be reduced. Until then, the mental health crisis will only continue to worsen. 


“18 Mental Health Activities for Self-Care: Ellie.” Ellie Mental Health, PLLP, Ellie Mental Health, 11 January 2024, elliementalhealth.com/18-mental-health-activities-for-coping-with-stress-anxiety-depression-and-more/#:~:text=You%20can%20even%20pick%20up,your%20routine%20can%20be%20refreshing.

“INN Episode 11.” YouTube, YouTube, 17 November 2023, www.youtube.com/watch?v=5unA1s2-1EY&t=883.


“Youth Mental Health: The Numbers.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, 2 May 2024, www.cdc.gov/healthyyouth/mental-health/mental-health-numbers.html#:~:text=Adolescent%20mental%20health%20in%20the,being%20related%20to%20mental%20health.



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