GRAND ISLAND, N.Y. (WIVB) — As many school districts return to the classroom this week, some schools are putting a big focus on the mental health of students.

One local school district has expanded a program to help students who may be experiencing a mental health crisis.

From school violence — to effects from the pandemic and distractions from social media — health experts say mental health issues among young people have reached crisis level. To start the school year, Grand Island Schools have put a strong emphasis on the mental health of all students.

“We’ve seen a tremendous increase in kids struggling with things like anxiety and depression from the impacts that the pandemic has had on them,” said Jessica Hutchings, a social worker for Grand Island Schools.

To combat the problem, the district has brought in two additional providers to offer mental health services.

Child and Family Services and Gateway Longview will work alongside Horizon Health Services and Mobile Counseling of New York and private practitioners, meeting with students in distress.

“We have some agencies that will see our kids into the afternoon and evenings, it’s kind of nice for the parents, it’s not one more thing that they have to take their kid to go off the island, make an appointment, the children are seen during school,” said Cheryl Cardone, assistant superintendent for pupil services at Grand Island Schools.

District officials say last year was eye-opening with more than 75 students referred to counseling providers — a big jump from the previous year, which had its challenges from remote learning. Cases of student discipline resulting in superintendent hearings tripled.

“Over the past few years, we have seen an increase in the mental health difficulties for our students including our faculty and staff, obviously our discipline was up significantly last year, we have superintendent hearings we had many more of those than we’ve had in the past,” Cardone said. “Because the needs of our students seems to have increased ten-fold, the amount of crisis counseling, the amount of touch-base counseling, the amount of times that the students need to see an adult during the day it has really taxed our current staff.”

Not only is Grand Island trying to get students the help they need, but also address the mental health crisis through curriculum.

“It’s certainly being talked about more, I think the stigma around mental health is something that we’re always working to reduce, but it’s always something you could do more to reduce,” Hutchings said. “I think the pandemic had a tremendous impact on kids socially and emotionally I think a lot of what we’ve seen is kids for a bit there forgot how to socialize appropriately with their peers and they sort of had to relearn that behavior.”

With the expansion of the program, there is at least one mental health service provider working every school day at Grand Island Schools. The district says it’s always looking to expand those services.

The district says its Parent Wellness series will return this school year in-person.

Meanwhile in Orchard Park, the town and school district have come together to open a Family Solutions Center that will in part, focus on the mental health of school aged children.

Jeff Preval is an award-winning anchor and reporter who joined the News 4 team in December 2021. See more of his work here.