Welcoming back troubled students

Program eases transition after care for depression

By Linda K. Wertheimer
Staff Writer / March 23, 2009
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BROOKLINE - Hannah Cummins rarely smiled during her freshman year at Brookline High School. She skipped classes, except for photography, where she found it soothing to develop pictures in the darkroom. There were days when she stayed in bed, afraid to face teachers she feared would be disappointed by her academic slide.

She seemed wrapped in sadness. "I was so hopeless," she said. "My self-esteem was so low."

Cummins disappeared from her school's radar, or so she thought, as she spent four months being treated for depression, first at Somerville Hospital, then at McLean Hospital.

But as her return to Brookline High neared two years ago, two Brookline social workers appeared in her hospital room and told her they would be there to help as part of the Brookline Resilient Youth Team. Created in 2004 as a partnership between the school and the town's mental health center, the program has worked with more than 200 teens after they were hospitalized for depression or other long-term medical issues. The social workers and a classroom aide help the students to make the transition, slowly, gingerly, back into the mainstream.

In a private room tucked in a corner near the school's main entrance, Cummins spent the last months of her freshman year making up missed work, receiving emotional support from the social workers, and meeting other teens with stories similar to hers.

At Brookline High, she found a sanctuary.

Now a junior receiving straight A's, the 17-year-old promotes her school's program as a solution for other teens. Cummins, as well as staff from the Brookline program and a similar effort in Wellesley, recently be seeched lawmakers to spread the effort to every large high school in the state. The program's creators view their efforts as saving lives; some students segue into the programs after hospitalization for suicide attempts or suicidal thoughts. Needham High also has a similar program, and Wayland High plans to start one this fall.

A pending budget amendment before the state Legislature would give $75,000 grants to help continue programs and start them at other high schools, said state Representative Ellen Story, Democrat of Amherst. But Story, who plans to keep championing the proposal, said budget constraints would make it difficult to pass the amendment this year.

Cummins, who testified at a recent state hearing, is a strong example of the need for more in-school services, Story said.

"Hannah has incredible prospects, and for a while, she needed a little extra help," she said. "If she hadn't gotten to that, the ending to her story or the next chapter in her story might have been very different."

When Cummins returned to Brookline High in March of her freshman year, the social workers tracked her progress for four to eight weeks. They posted her schedule on a bulletin board, acted as go-betweens with teachers to arrange make-up work and exams, and provided a sympathetic ear when being in the mainstream became too tough. And, they kept the door open for Cummins after her initial monitoring period ended.

"On my first day back at Brookline High, I was completely overwhelmed," Cummins recalled of the reentry to the 1,900-student school. "Because of my depression, I was on the verge of giving up my standard for being a good student."

Cummins, whose parents divorced when she was 11, first was diagnosed with depression in eighth grade and was hospitalized for two weeks. Her depression, she was told, stemmed from a chemical imbalance and problems at home. At the time, she lived with her father, while her younger sister lived with their mother.

During her hospitals stays her freshman year, counselors at McLean and Somerville hospitals taught her ways to cope when she began feeling emotionally overwhelmed. At Brookline High, like when they were in the hospital, Cummins and other teens can listen to music, sip tea, eat candy, or play board games during free periods in the Brookline Youth Resilient Team room. "I will not wait for a great day. I will make one," says one of several sayings posted in the room.

On a recent weekday morning, as she does almost every school day during her free period, Cummins, a wisp of a teen with straight, black hair, slipped quietly into the room and sat on the flowered couch in the back. She began reading a collection of short stories as another student worked on homework with the classroom aide.

Depression, she said, is something she still confronts. In the summer before her sophomore year, her father died, intensifying her depression to the point that she did not feel she could handle returning to the main campus. She spent the school year in an off-campus therapeutic program in Chestnut Hill.

Junior year, she returned to Brookline High, and once again, the team room provided a haven. She is comfortable confiding in the social workers, although not her teachers, most of whom know little about her past, she said. Brookline teachers, however, said they welcome the program's assistance.

"Two kids like this, even one, is overwhelming for the teacher. We don't know what our students are dealing with," said Jennifer Martin, a social studies teacher.

Cummins has let some of her photography work reveal a bit about her. Standing near a display of student photos in the high school's arts building, she pointed out a picture of her 12-year-old sister, Nina, walking alone on a beach in Ireland, where the sisters' father was born. The photo was taken last summer, around the first anniversary of their father's death.

"It's very solitary," Cummins said of the photo's scene. "It was so beautiful to me."

Many of her photos, she said, show a sadness she still feels.

"I feel outside of high school," she said.

Teachers, though, see a much happier teen, one who smiles at them now in the halls, said Katherine Houle, one of the social workers who visited Cummins in the hospital during her freshman year.

"Hannah walks with such confidence now. She looks like she has peace," Houle said.

Cummins's mother, an epidemiologist at Children's Hospital, said she and her daughter are still unraveling what happened to the teen in the past several years. But they also are looking ahead.

"It's like she's 180 degrees from where she was as a freshman," Patrice Melvin, her mother, said. "She was very emotionally fragile. She couldn't write. Now, she's just excelling."

Cummins speaks with hope about plans for a future that include college and maybe a major in social work.

"I'm at a different place now than I was two years ago," she said. "I'm able to see how far I've come."

Linda K. Wertheimer can be reached at

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