Access to mental health support services is limited at Island public schools despite a growing need, especially among students who face cultural barriers in education.

This is one conclusion of a preliminary health and wellness report released last week for Island schools.

The report was requested by superintendent of schools Dr. Matthew D’Andrea and is based on hundreds of interviews with and surveys of school staff, students, parents and community members conducted over the past year.

The draft report found that more health and wellness services are needed across the board in Island schools, and it provides a window into the stress factors affecting Island students. School employees cited anxiety as a major mental health need affecting students. They also described stresses in students’ home environments: housing instability, parent or family substance use disorder and food insecurity among them.

Consultants are still processing some of the data and will draft a final version this fall with specific recommendations, but they joined the meeting by video chat to share early findings with school committee members and other community stakeholders.

“One of the primary recommendations that we had within health education, an identified need pretty universally . . . was to have all-Island guidelines and support for health education curricula,” said one of the report’s authors, Dr. Sharon Hoover, during the informal meeting with school committee representatives last week. She drafted the report alongside Dr. Matthew Biel, Dr. Jeff Bostic of MedStar Georgetown University Hospital, and Dr. Nancy Lever, with whom she directs the National Center for School Mental Health.

The section of the report that focused on mental health access found that most schools have too few counselors to meet needs and some schools don’t have full-time guidance counselors.

“Our guidance staff are amazing people, but they seem to be spread very thin,” said one employee interviewed for the report. “We could use a clinician (social worker) on staff who spent their entire day seeing students for therapy.”

Another school employee interviewed for the report said: “We, as a small, rural one-school district do not have the resources to provide interventions, counseling, community liaisons and the specialized programming our many children with mental health issues require.”

Consultants praised school nurses, but recommended that they and other staff receive more training in mental health services, and that school staff take a more collaborative approach to the issue.

Cultural differences can make addressing mental health problems in Island schools more difficult, according to one staff member interviewed for the report. Another school employee said Brazilian children are unable to access bilingual therapists in some schools.

Consultants also found that health class looks different depending on which school a student attends, and not all schools have a full-time health educator. They emphasized the need for Islandwide guidelines and called for sufficient school time to be allocated to health and wellness classes.

“Students enter high school with very different foundations in health education,” the report says.

Substance use has long been a concern at Island schools, and the report noted that many Island students are exposed to substance use at early ages, and that some parents do not discourage use of marijuana. It praised the Youth Task Force, an Island organization dedicated to preventing substance use among young people.

The preliminary report makes suggestions for practices in many areas of general wellness. Short lunch periods at one school, for example, were cited as an area of concern. Low morale among staff was described at another school.

Consultants said they were impressed with the level of feedback they received on community surveys. They said while some problems exist in one school and not others, the final report would not name specific schools. Dr. Hoover said doing so may not be as effective as aiming to make recommendations that will encourage all schools to improve services and education. And while they recommended an Islandwide coordination of health curricula, consultants said they understood that each school on the Island takes pride in its distinctive character.

“We were made acutely conscious again and again and again of strong ant-centralist sentiments across the Island,” said Dr. Biel of MedStar Georgetown University Hospital. “If we ignored those in our report, I think it would be an indication we weren’t paying attention.”

The authors of the study will visit the Island in person in September to finalize the report.