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As de Blasio tries to tackle mental illness, students’ mental health is a priority

New York City faces a “daunting” mental health crisis, which afflicts tens of thousands of public school students each year, according to city health officials who released a report on the issue Thursday.

The City Hall report gathers data from previous studies in order to lay out the scope of the mental-health crisis, which Mayor Bill de Blasio has promised to confront. It includes the results of a 2013 city health department survey that found that 8 percent of high school students reported attempting suicide, and thousands more reported feeling despondent.

It comes as the education department had made the expansion of mental-health services a central feature of its efforts to improve schools with poor academic achievement and attendance. Schools in the city’s new “community school” and “Renewal” programs have been able to hire new mental-health workers and offer extra services, such as art therapy and group counseling.

“All the right things are being said,” said Hans Bernier, a program manager at Wediko Children’s Services, which helps schools address students’ social and emotional needs. The challenge, he said, is “How do you keep that up long term and not have it fade with every election cycle?”

The report marks the first step in de Blasio’s effort to improve mental health across the city, an initiative championed by his wife, Chirlane McCray. Though details of the program have not been released, officials said that public schools will play a crucial role in the forthcoming plan.

“Schools are an obvious and important place to reach kids,” said Dr. Gary Belkin, the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene executive deputy commissioner, on a conference call Thursday afternoon. He added that any comprehensive policy must involve a number of city departments, including the education department.

Some of the most striking findings included in the report involve the city’s public school students.

In 2013, 73,000 high school students report feeling sad or hopeless each month, according to an anonymous survey conducted that year by the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. One in 10 high schoolers reported being hit, slapped or physically hurt by someone they were going out with in the past year, according to that survey.

Thirty-five students in New York City committed suicide from 2011 through the beginning of 2014, according to city data cited by the New York Post last year. The stark statistics made an impact on Chancellor Carmen Fariña, who noted in a speech to principals last year that 10 students had taken their lives during her first seven weeks on the job, the Post reported.

Convinced that students’ personal issues can get in the way of their learning, the de Blasio administration has turned a number of schools into hubs that provide medical and mental health services, nutrition and fitness programs, and other support for families. The city is creating 130 of those community schools, which includes 94 low-performing schools in the city’s Renewal improvement program.

It will spend more than $7 million over the next several years to create mental-health clinics inside Renewal schools, according to a report by the city’s Independent Budget Office. At the same time, Chancellor Carmen Fariña lifted a citywide hiring freeze on new guidance counselors, and hired workers at new school-support centers whose job is to help schools with counseling.

“It’s essential that schools provide students a safe and supportive learning environment that meets their social-emotional needs,” said education department spokesman Harry Hartfield. “Over the past two years, we’ve increased the number of social workers and guidance counselors in our schools and opened more mental health clinics in schools than ever before.”

Meanwhile, New York’s first lady has made mental health a top priority. In May, McCray said the city will invest millions of dollars in new mental health initiatives. The mayor’s office said it would release more details on the latest initiative, ThriveNYC, in the coming weeks.

Youth mental health is likely to feature prominently in the plan. Childhood trauma can sometimes lead to mental illness later in life, with about three-quarters of mental health and substance use disorders emerging by age 24, according to the report.

The plan may focus in particular on low-income New Yorkers. Ninety percent of city children between ages of two and five who are diagnosed with common mental health disorders live in poverty, the report said. Almost 80 percent of the city’s students are eligible for free or reduced lunch, which is a marker of poverty, according to the IBO.