Kids were experiencing increasing levels of anxiety and depression before Covid-19 shut down their schools and changed lives, but those levels have nearly doubled since the pandemic, according to a 2021 report in the medical journal JAMA Pediatrics. As the new coordinator for Mental Health Services for Portage Public Schools, Marianne Joynt sees that trend firsthand.
“We have kids of all ages who were doing well before the pandemic who now are in need of extra support because of their anxiety and depression,” says Joynt. “We’ve had kids who did well at home during the pandemic and then are struggling to transition back to school. And we had kids who felt isolated at home and struggled then and are doing better now coming back and being able to be with their friends.”
Joynt, 48, has been a practicing psychologist in the Kalamazoo area for the past 15 years. Her new role is to help PPS students having mental health challenges and their families find treatment and gain access to community resources. The Three Rivers native and resident says she always knew she’d work with kids.
“I was working with kids from the time that I was young by doing camps, being a soccer coach for years and a producer for musicals at the high school,” she says. “Those pieces allowed me to just connect with kids in a really positive way.”
How did you know you were going to be a psychologist?
I think it developed in the later years of high school. I always found myself being a good listener and having empathy. I was very, very interested in science and recognized that I really wanted to work with people, so I put my mind to it. I didn’t even apply anywhere other than Western because I knew that they had a really good psychology program. When I got to my master’s program, I went into the counselor education and counseling psychology program. That was what really piqued my interest in figuring out how to work within the family system, how to work within larger school systems and bring everyone together.
Who is your inspiration?
My family is definitely my inspiration. My parents supported everything I wanted to do educationally, and they’re still there for me. We have family meals and travel together. My boys are amazing. I have a son who is working with a church and also very into music. My other son is at Michigan State, studying conservation, and I think he wants to be a DNR officer. They are the joy in my life, and they give me purpose. Even when things are difficult, I know I want to continue to be a good role model for them.
How would you describe mental health?
When we talk about supporting mental health, we’re talking about a whole spectrum, from mentally healthy to significantly mentally ill. At different times, we all are at different areas on that spectrum, and that is why, as a community, we need to work together to support one another, even if we’re different. Some people look at the phrase “mental health” as a way to judge and as a political weapon. It should never be used that way.
What is the schools’ role in a child’s mental health?
A child’s academic success is linked to their overall health and well-being, making it important to attend to the development of the whole child. We focus on students mainly because establishing healthy behaviors during childhood is easier and more effective than trying to change unhealthy behaviors during adulthood. As a result, schools play a critical role in promoting the health and safety of young people and helping them establish lifelong healthy behaviors.
What are the initiatives you are working on at PPS?
Every year the focus will change a little bit. Currently, I am working on suicide-prevention training and making sure all staff are comfortable enough with the topic so they know what to do, what to look for, and how to report it (when someone may be having suicidal thoughts). There is also something called
“Mental Health First Aid,” which helps students feel comfortable and connected in school. It involves training staff and parents, because you don’t necessarily get a class on how to keep our kids healthy. However, these initiatives will take time. Let’s say I start training parents and I can do a group of 30 at a time. OK, it’s going to take time, and then there’s going to be a time when those parents have kids who’ve graduated and we’re starting over. System change takes a long time.
What do you wish people knew about your job?
Sometimes school districts can get a bad rap because they have to make difficult decisions administratively. The Portage Public Schools district sees a need and is doing something about it. This district is validating the things that I’m saying are important and working with me to make positive change. That doesn’t just happen. From superintendent to building staff, all are amazingly supportive of the students in this district and getting them the help that they need. We are focusing on prevention, not just reaction to a mental health crisis. That has given me the opportunity to have needs met.
— Interview by Kalloli Bhatt, edited for length and clarity.