Kelly O’Ryan is the new Principal at Bellows Falls Union High School.
Courtesy photo
Kelly O’Ryan is the new Principal at Bellows Falls Union High School.

BFUHS will turn focus on student mental health

The Jed Foundation aims to improve students’ mental and emotional health through self-assessment surveys and a three-year plan

BELLOWS FALLS-This month, Bellows Falls Union High School will begin a partnership with the Jed Foundation, a national nonprofit, for a three-year program aimed at improving and safeguarding the emotional and mental health of students and preventing teen and young adult suicide.

The Jed Foundation was established by Phil and Donna Satow following the death of their youngest son, Jed, by suicide in 1998, when he was in college.

BFUHS and the Jed Foundation will collaborate on implementing a comprehensive high school program of mental health support and suicide prevention that has been used in over 500 high schools, colleges, and universities in the U.S.

New BFUHS Principal Kelly O'Ryan said the first step in implementing the program will be conducting a confidential self-assessment survey this month focused on getting an overview of student behavior. This will create a baseline from which to focus on the specific mental health issues local students are facing.

"Jed is going to help us crunch the numbers," O'Ryan said, "and help us create a road map going ahead."

According to a release from the school, the collaboration will invoke a "strategic planning process" to evaluate "existing initiatives while fostering positive, systemic change within the high school community."

Specifically, the program provides the schools with essential resources, such as this initial assessment survey and the feedback reports based on that data, and then helps create a strategic mental and emotional health plan, with ongoing support over the three years from the Jed Foundation High School Program team.

BFUHS has created an interdisciplinary, campus-wide team that will be dedicated to implementing the program enhancements focused on improving student mental and emotional health. The feedback from the Jed Foundation will use the survey to help the school see what it is doing well and what it needs to improve.

That collaboration will continue over the next three years as the school implements specific suggestions from the Jed Foundation's mental health experts. Principal O'Ryan said that the school will keep the community updated on how the program progresses.

Increasing mental health issues among teens

"We're very concerned with the issues of mental health and social connectedness of our students," O'Ryan said.

School-based clinician Vicki Jones said that "more and more kids are struggling to do day-to-day things - their schoolwork, being comfortable in a classroom, and of course many kids have trouble navigating the social network."

O'Ryan said that pockets of students, in particular LGBTQ students and students of color, often experience the school climate in more negative ways. "It is a complex day-to-day climate in the school."

One of the issues many students seem to struggle with across the board is chronically high truancy. Increased anxiety often leads to students feeling the need to avoid being in class or even in the school itself.

Social media and cyberbullying also present issues for many students, and can sometimes add to an already unwelcoming atmosphere.

Substance use - in particular tobacco, alcohol and cannabis - continues to be a recurring problem among teens. The advent of nicotine and cannabis vaping has added a new level of concern to these issues.

Students have also expressed anxiety and concern that they face a bleaker future than earlier generations. For some, pursuing the necessary education for the career they desire means graduating from college and starting their adult life saddled with massive student loan debt.

A rapidly changing global climate is a major concern among young people, as is the threat that war in Ukraine will escalate into another world war.

The way the U.S. is addressing the atrocities and civilian deaths in the latest Israel-Hamas war isone of the major concerns of young people when asked about the upcoming presidential election.

The largest political divide in over a century and a half in this nation, with serious threats to personal freedom and life choices combined with a massive and constant flow of disinformation, add to the anxiety young people are feeling.

In the past few years, these issues were dramatically exacerbated by the Covid pandemic. The resulting shutdown of schools and social isolation have had a massive negative effect on young people.

One parent of a BFUHS student said she believed many young adults developed major mental health issues during the isolation of the Covid shutdown.

"So many students lived in areas where they had no Wi-Fi service," she said, "and they could not even do their classes. They had no schedule or routine and were doing their classwork in their pajamas all day in their beds. They had nothing to look forward to."

What BFUHS saw happening to its students was similar to what happened in every place affected by the pandemic, but being in a rural community presents additional challenges.

"This is exactly what I saw and exactly what these students shared with me," she said. "The parents were also getting depressed due to seeing how this was affecting their children and no one knew when the end of the pandemic would come."

Dealing with the aftermath of the Covid pandemic on students will certainly be one of the focuses of BFUHS's work with the Jed Foundation program, O'Ryan said.

New principal is hopeful

Coming in this year as the school's new principal, O'Ryan brings to that position her previous work as the BFUHS diversity and equity coordinator and the Windham Northeast Supervisory Union Title XI coordinator.

"What Jed has," O'Ryan said, "is that they understand this work on a national level. They know about what resources are available and they can help supply some of these resources to BFUHS."

O'Ryan said that at times BFUHS feels like "being on an island. We're in a bubble here," she noted, compared to the greater resources available in larger high schools such as those in Brattleboro and Springfield.

She expressed enthusiasm and hope about what the new Jed Foundation partnership will bring to the table. "At BFUHS, we are deeply committed to nurturing the holistic well-being of our students," she stated. "Partnering with the Jed Foundation allows us to access invaluable resources and expertise to strengthen our mental health support systems and foster a culture of resilience within our school community."

For more information about the Jed Foundation high school program, visit

This News item by Robert F. Smith was written for The Commons.

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