/ August 26, 2021

Mental Health Services for High-Needs Schools: A student’s self-love, a school’s pride

When Jose, a student at The Heritage School in East Harlem, graduated this year, he reflected on a profound journey of personal growth. In some ways, it started when he met Robert Marchesani – or Rob, as the students of Heritage call him.

As a mental health clinician for Counseling in Schools (CIS), Rob believes in creating an environment where all students can experience authentic self-expression and self-acceptance. Through a partnership between the Mayor’s Office of Community Mental Health and the Office of School Health, he provides individual, group, and crisis intervention counseling to students. He also works closely with Heritage’s principal, teachers and staff to offer advisory sessions for students, covering issues like cyberbullying, self-regulation, racial bias, healthy relationship development, and gender identity. Addressing these important social-emotional topics with the whole school community has helped build a culture where student differences and experiences are valued, and opportunities for leadership are encouraged.

For Jose, that’s made all the difference. As a freshman, Jose struggled with his sexuality. He experienced symptoms of depression, and suicidal ideation, but never told anyone what he was feeling. That is, until he participated in one of Rob’s group advisory sessions. The sessions helped motivate Jose to seek one-on-one therapy with Rob. Looking back, Jose calls that decision “life changing.”

Individual counseling helped provide Jose with the external support he was missing. He worked with Rob to strengthen relationships with his family, affirm his sexual orientation, and build self-esteem.

Jose continued participating in counseling and advisory sessions over the next few years, growing in confidence along the way. He finally felt like he belonged, and he wanted to share that feeling with others at his school. With Rob’s guidance and support, Jose founded The Heritage School’s first-ever Genders and Sexualities Alliance (GSA), called “Pride’s Pride.” The group has become a safe space for LGBTQI+ students and their allies to find acceptance and validation among their peers, and strength and support within their community.

Although COVID-19 disrupted Jose’s senior year, he was able to continue working with Rob to help navigate the challenges. In June, he was recognized as the school’s valedictorian – a tremendous feat for a young man who once felt so isolated. Now, as he transitions to becoming a student at New York University, Jose knows he’s not alone – he has a community of support behind him. Most importantly, he has the confidence to be himself, and to practice what he calls “self-love.”

AT A GLANCE: Mental Health Services for High-Needs Schools

• Mental health services are on-site at 248 high-needs schools across the five boroughs
• Students have access to individual and group supportive counseling and psychiatric treatment
• Community partners also focus on building each school’s capacity to address mental health needs

• Students have participated in over 181,000 individual or group supportive counseling sessions since the program began in 2017
• Over 14,000 trainings have been provided to teachers, staff and families through this program