Wilton, Connecticut is nationally recognized for its resources to help people with mental illness, but that does not mean the problem does not persist. GOOD Morning Wilton intern Lily Kepner spent her four-week internship investigating “Mental Health in Wilton,” culminating in this two-part series about resources, climate, and action. Kepner interviewed six different people, combed through town documents and research findings, and transcribed over three hours worth of interviews, or almost 30 pages. An issue dear to her heart, this is what Kepner discovered.

Call to Action

“It used to be a feeling, now it’s a fact.”

Colleen Fawcett, Wilton Youth Services,
recounts a Board of Education member’s comment

Since 1948, the month of May has been designated as Mental Health Month, a time many organizations use to raise awareness of mental health and provide support for people suffering from mental health issues, advocate for them, and educate the public. May of 2019 has passed, and with it, much of the enthusiasm to erase the stigma or recognize its presence.

Wilton, CT is not immune to this issue. Someone suffering from a mental illness fights an internal battle often unknown to the public, friends, and even family members, but that does not mean the battle isn’t there.

Kate DeAngelis, 18, a recently graduated Wilton High School senior, has suffered with anxiety and depression her whole life.

“For me,” DeAngelis explains, “it can be really difficult to leave my house or what I am familiar with […] I feel faint and nauseous, and can get really, really upset.”

Even at her illness’s worst, many of DeAngelis’s teachers, friends, and even family had no idea what she struggled with, “I was pretty good at putting on a fake smile and saying everything’s fine,” she remarks, “But then I learned, once I went to therapy, that you don’t have to do that, and it’s really important not to do that, because you won’t get help unless you ask for it.” 

Coming forward and talking about mental illness is considered to be one of the clearest ways to reduce the stigma of mental illness. But it is not an easy thing to do, especially in a high performing town and school district, which–true to its perpetual “striving for excellence” motto–can sometimes drive students, parents, and community members to take on unrealistic expectations, and suffer in silence.

When you say you have to go to therapy today or have to take your medication, people think you’re crazy and insane,” DeAngelis reflects. “But you’re not. More people suffer from mental illnesses around you then you would ever know.”

In 2017, Dr. Suniya S. Luthar from Arizona State University worked with Wilton High School to collect data on the current health of Wilton High School students, with the hope of best directing future school developments that will effectively maximize student well-being. Over 1,200 students took the extensive survey in November of 2017, self reporting their internalizing symptoms (such as depression, anxiety and somatic symptoms) and externalizing symptoms (such as aggression), in addition to substance abuse and pro-social behavior.

Luthar summarized the results in a presentation at the high school in March of 2018. The findings were significant:   30% of students reported having “above average” levels of internalizing symptoms–23 percentage points higher than the national average of 7%; 20% reported “much above average” levels–significantly raised from the national average of 2%. It is important to note that Wilton is not alone in this; these elevated levels are a common theme in other high performing schools, but still cause for concern.

Now the question is, why do students feel this way. And what can we do? 

In her presentation, Luthar designated college readiness as one of the strongest pressures students put on themselves and feel from the school, community, and parents. In Luthar’s presentation of 2018, when talking about solutions, she said, “The panic about college…. we adults need to look at that and say, ‘Is it worth it?'”

Part of the reason DeAngelis believes student stress is so high, as Luthar’s report suggests, is because of an emphasis on high performance and academics over personal health and wellness within Wilton.

“I think this town really needs to focus on the happiness of students,” DeAngelis says, “I easily could have been pushed to do something I didn’t love or wasn’t passionate about only because it looks good,” she adds, because of that pressure.

Though Wilton is renowned in its success in sending kids to pursue secondary education, for students selecting a different path, or struggling to meet the standards of a “good” college, it can often feel isolating and overwhelming.

In 2018, GOOD Morning Wilton then-intern Shelby Connor addressed the issue of this stress in an OP-ED about the annual release of students college plans, while this year, 2019 intern Grace Bracken wrote about students taking gap years to illustrate how even in a heavily college-focused town, that isn’t necessarily the best option for everybody, emphasizing that no one should be ashamed of selecting an untraditional path.

Student Resources at WHS:  

“I always say they saved my life.” 

–Kate DeAngelis (WHS ’18), who credits the school’s social workers, guidance counselors,
and mental health support staff, as being truly instrumental in her recovery.

Three years ago, Kim Zemo, Safe School Climate Coordinator, became responsible for regulating school climate across the district and introducing new initiatives to help make each of Wilton’s four schools more accepting and welcoming. The position was created by the Community Safety Task Force, (formerly called Wilton Security Task Force) formed after the devastating Sandy Hook Shooting, to fill a need town leaders saw for better management of school climate.

Zemo, with over 20 years of experience as a social worker, was thrilled to take on this new role, as school climate and community resources always have been important to her. Zemo says a lot of her job involves “looking at the big picture and making sure that we’re programming here at the high school in a more proactive and positive way,” as well as, “creating a safe environment for all students” grades Pre-K to 12 to promote a positive school climate and resulting mental health benefits

In her time at WHS, DeAngelis participated in the school’s FLEX program–what Zemo describes as a “layer of support” for students who need it. “It’s a room that’s open, a student can be scheduled there for one period and can get academic support as well as social and emotional support.” This room is staffed all throughout the school day. 

“[In] the FLEX program, there’s a variety of needs students have. They are often times bright students and motivated but there is a social or emotional component that is preventing them from accessing the mainstream environment, in the typical way,” Zemo explains. With different “tiers” of support, FLEX can be anything from a sort of “academic lab”-like setting, to a place where classes into the four core areas are conducted, to the “Genesis” program, where students are on a different type of schedule. 

Lorraine Morlath, a Wilton High School guidance counselor, co-chairs the school’s Mental Health Awareness Team, made up of all of the mental health staff:  school psychologists, school counselors, school social workers, administrators, the department heads of special education, the nurses, and the School Resource Officer, Police Officer Richard Ross, as well as a Kids in Crisis counselor, who is on retainer.

This group meets bi-weekly on Fridays to review mental health issues within the community, and to discuss students anyone is concerned about, “in a confidential setting, and make a plan for that individual so that we are using all the resources available to help. The approach is individualized for every student. You have to meet them where they are,” Morlath says. The team works to uncover the source of any problems, and address those.

Morlath works with the other mental health staff on collecting data about connectedness and monitoring student well being through a variety of approaches. One of the school’s main priorities is to make sure every student has a trusted adult in the building. Morlath says the team works to prepare all teachers to help recognize when a student needs help, and connect them with the proper resources. “It’s important for us to know as well because no one should be going through any of this alone.”

What’s Changing

Though Wilton’s mental health data is comparable to other high performing towns, the findings illustrate a significant demand for continued improvement to mental health intervention. Many new methods of support have been implemented already, and many plans are in the works.

Zemo has worked with the school to act on the results of this data, in small and big ways, to make a difference in the school, collaborating with internal and external professionals to make sure more students feel safe and protected.

One new initiative that has been implemented in all four Wilton schools is the “Gaggle” software alert system, a computer network mechanism that will alert the administration if a student uses curse words, or downloads or writes something of concern.

“It has picked up things that students have written that really share their pain, that sometimes we didn’t know about,” Zemo explains.  “[Because of it] we are able to intervene and get them help. If one student lets us know about something we might have otherwise not, then I think all the annoyances on the swear words and stuff like that is definitely worth it.” This approach has been particularly helpful in identifying concerns for younger students.

In addition to the Gaggle software, students receive monthly “Speak Up” reminders via their school emails, where students have the opportunity to anonymously report any things of concern.

Link Crew, a club centered on integrating freshmen more seamlessly into the Wilton High School community, has also been a fairly recent addition to the high school that has made an impact. Zemo notes that this was an initiative to make the climate more welcoming and less frightening to new students. Block scheduling will be instituted starting in fall 2019 as a way to reduce student stress by spacing out the classes.

In terms of plans for the future, social and emotional skill development is at the core of the school’s iniatives.

One of Zemo’s big future plans is to introduce a program called RULER, developed by the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, to teach students the skills of emotional intelligence through “recognizing, understanding, labeling, expressing, and regulating emotion” as the acronym stands for. This program was tested on staff throughout the district this past year, and Zemo hopes it will be implemented in the classroom for kids too.

“It also involves problem-solving skills that goes along with the sort of practices we’ve been looking at as a school as well, and then a classroom or school charter that states this is how we want to feel in our building. So it fits nicely with our climate work, and will also help students focus on the social-emotional piece,” Zemo states. A big part of the goal of this initiative is to get kids comfortable with their emotions, and developing consistent vocabulary across schools for students to use to communicate about how they feel. 

An alternative school at Trackside, in the process of being implemented, is another exciting development. This school will be an off-site location offered to select high school students who require a creative approach to education because of social and emotional needs the current high school cannot yet meet. This will be a more creative, comfortable work environment for students who don’t fit in the traditional high school, capped at 20 students.

Even if they are academically strong, Zemo believes that without the emotional piece, students cannot be truly successful: “It really is the whole student. They can be a really strong academic student but are they emotionally solid? Because that is just as important, and sometimes even more so. If you’re not regulated it’s going to be really hard for you to access what you’re learning in the classroom.”

As for what the focus is to continue to combat this future, Zemo wants future plans to center on promoting social and emotional well-being in all students, regardless of the quality of their mental health.

“We are trying to address things in a lot of different ways. We are going to continue to use our advisory program now to make sure it addresses different needs… to ensure kids feel connected.”

See PART TWO, running Thursday, for more information on resources in the town, and what you can do.