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Hillsborough Schools leaders consider task force to address health issues brought on by pandemic

One board member said issues may be starting at the middle school level or earlier.

TAMPA, Fla. — The Hillsborough County School Board heard some alarming statistics during a workshop Tuesday when it comes to depression, substance abuse and other issues that students are experiencing in relation to the pandemic.

“If we don’t address this, and we see it now, it will continue to grow legs and be a major, major issue that really majorly impact our children along the way,” Superintendent Addison Davis said.

Board members heard from local organizations Hillsborough partners with and saw data showing increases in depression, suicide and substance abuse including alcohol, marijuana and other drug use at or above national and state averages.

“COVID has created, not just a physical health phenomenon, but we have coined throughout the mental health community as a behavioral health tsunami,” Crisis Center of Tampa Bay Director Clara Reynolds said. “And we are all feeling it right now.”

Ideas to tackle the issues include creating a task force updating statistics more frequently and increasing the number of presentations made to students, parents and staff. There may be more posters and other information displayed in classrooms. 

Pilot programs that leverage the districts’ current relationship with partner agencies may also help to provide age-appropriate counseling and treatment.

Also, there will be ongoing efforts to reduce the stigma of seeking mental health counseling and encouraging more peer-based programs, since it’s been shown that students will also often listen to and trust each other.

“I think that high school is almost too late. I think a lot of kids are starting drugs at a very young age in middle school as young as elementary school,” board member Nadia Combs said.

Hillsborough Schools also decided this year to spend more money on guidance counselors. The district has one of the highest ratios of students to counselors in the state. The idea is to give counselors more time to concentrate on these troubling issues rather than worrying about tests or filling in as substitute teachers.

Without improving mental health, say board members, everything else falls by the wayside.

“COVID brought out a lot. We all have had problems,” board member Henry Washington said. “We need to work on it.”

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