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Onondaga County to spend $5 million on mental health services in schools

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More help is on the way in Onondaga County for children facing more mental health issues than ever before because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The county is committing more than $5 million to beef up mental health services in schools.

Cicero-North Syracuse sophomore Sydney Wright said it’s the isolation that is crippling many teens mentally during the pandemic.

“You can’t see anyone, you can’t talk to anyone really. You just feel isolated, and for those who don’t reach out to other people it can feel lonely,” said Wright. “If you don’t have a good support system at home. If you don’t have good friends, it adds another layer to what teenagers are dealing with.”

Tonilynn Broccoli runs an after school program for teens in Cicero called The Canteen. While the antidote to that loneliness is getting back to the classroom, it’s a double edged sword, because it amps up another issue: anxiety.

“And they're feeling uncomfortable and on edge, and as excited as they are to coming back to school four days a week, they're also worried about passing the virus on to grandparents, family members,” said Broccoli. “They’re very worried about things that adults don’t even have on their radar.”

Onondaga County hopes adding more than 100 counselors, and requiring every school to have an onsite mental health clinic, will help those kids. CNS Superintendent Daniel Bowles said the district will find more mental health needs as children return to the classroom more regularly.

"We’re only hitting the tip of the iceberg, and as we get more students back into school, we’re going to find out what happened over time, with families, for our students, and that’s going to be critical,” said Bowles. “So these supports are essential."

The other aspect of this, is creating a system that makes kids want to talk about mental health issues. CNS Senior Sam Nessel says there’s a certain stigma to reaching out for help, and that needs to change.

“I think the biggest thing is the de-stigmatization aspect, so people are comfortable accessing these additional resources,” said Nessel.

Up to now, most mental health services have been concentrated in districts with high poverty rates. By September, these services will be in place in every district in the county, regardless of income, something Wright believes is sorely needed.

“A lot of people are afraid to speak up when they’re struggling, especially high achieving students, like perfectionists, they don’t want you to know that things are going on in their life,” she said. “And anyone can be struggling with something."