Riverside expansion of mental health services a 'positive thing'

May 25—TAYLOR — Amelia Melnick sees friends and classmates struggle with depression, anxiety and other mental health issues.

Fellow juniors Tess Parchinski, Cassie Jenkins and Matthew Alfieri see it too.

The Riverside School District, which boasts comprehensive mental health services, now has another resource for struggling students: their peers.

"It's not something to be embarrassed about," Amelia said during the district's mental health awareness fair Thursday. "People can come to us and get help."

This spring, Riverside launched the mental health program, Aevidum, a word with Latin roots that means "I've got your back." A group of Lancaster County students started the program 20 years ago after losing a classmate to suicide, and it's now in schools across the country.

Teachers helped select 10 students from various social groups — including Amelia, Tess, Cassie and Matthew — to serve as student leaders. The students received training and serve as an additional resource for their peers.

"Sometimes you don't want to talk to a teacher," Matthew said.

Providers say the mental health needs of the region's children have never been greater. The pandemic, especially when students learned from home, brought many underlying mental health issues to the surface. Now, with greater awareness, more students seek help.

"They're able to advocate for themselves. It's a good thing," said Melanie Galli, Scranton Counseling Center crisis coordinator, which offered information about services during the fair. "Students know resources are available."

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data shows the great need. In 2021, 42% of students surveyed felt persistently sad or hopeless. More than one in five students seriously considered attempting suicide, and one in 10 attempted it.

With the help of grant funds, Riverside has essentially created its own counseling agency within the district of 1,521 students. Students receive help from two school counselors, a crisis counselor, three full-time licensed professional counselors, a licensed social worker and three outpatient therapists. A psychiatrist and physician assistant also visit regularly to see students and manage medications.

J.T. Yarem, head of the district's counseling department, handled double the number of crisis calls last year as he did prior to the pandemic.

He greeted students, some as young as second grade, as they arrived to the fair behind the high school Thursday. About 20 community agencies provided information on resources and assistance.

Students followed the rhythm in a drum circle, after learning more about music therapy. In front of the yoga table, students practiced tree poses.

"I'm hoping they understand just how much help is available to them," Yarem said. "Mental health is not a negative thing. It's a positive thing."

Contact the writer: shofius@timesshamrock.com; 570-348-9133; @hofiushallTT on Twitter.