By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky’s students are experiencing more anxiety, depression and ideas of suicide in the pandemic, and schools need more resources to help them, mental-health experts told state legislators Oct. 5.
Before the Interim Joint Committee on Education, they called for putting more mental-health professionals in schools, giving teachers more first-aid training in mental health, and programs that would help students be more resilient and keep them from taking their own lives, an increasing problem.
“The needs are many, but the resources are few,” Marsha Duncan, a social-emotional learning specialist for LaRue County Schools, told the committee.
Among Kentuckians under 25, deaths by suicide increased 11% in 2020, according to state-provided data. Emergency-room visits related to self-harm were 5% below historical averages last year, but hospitalizations for self-harm rose 8%. Figures for 2021 are not yet available.
One three-month period in the last year had a youth suicide rate 57% higher than the previous year, said Linda Tyree, crisis response director for the Green River Regional Educational Cooperative
, which serves 45 school districts
The Bowling Green-based co-op has crisis teams that are typically called in when there is a death or serious injury of a student or staff member, but during the pandemic they’ve been called in for issues of anxiety, depression and having ideas of suicide, Tyree said.
“When students transitioned to remote learning, we know there was a lot of exposure to trauma, to stress, family stress, even exposure to pornography when they’re learning online,” she said. “So all of these things just compound the problems of adolescence that are just part of normal growing up.”
Amy Riley, a school counselor in Mercer County, told the legislators, “The isolation of the Covid pandemic has had a profound effect on the mental health of my students and students across the state.”
In her Mercer County Intermediate School in Harrodsburg, “There were weeks this past spring, shortly after returning from virtual learning, that we would assess two to three students a day for viable suicidal threats,” Riley said. “Just this morning, I had to do a suicide risk assessment on a 9-year-old in my school before I came to this hearing today.”
She said the reasons for these suicidal threats include unmanageable anxiety, home problems and often loneliness.
Duncan, of LaRue County, added grief to the list of things students are dealing with, and not just for those who have died of Covid-19.
“Grieving for these students has taken on a grief of the loss of the normal … fun, activities and programs that are offered and provided at the schools,” Duncan said. “Dealing with the lack of consistent routines has been detrimental to the mental health of our students.”
Similar issues are reported around the world. A global analysis of 29 studies that included more than 80,000 youth, published
in JAMA Pediatrics,
found that anxiety and depression has doubled in children and adolescents over the course of the pandemic. It also found they occurred more later in the pandemic, in older adolescents and in girls.
Duncan said it has been “impossible” to meet students’ mental-health needs during remote learning and “extremely difficult” under the hybrid model. She said access to mental-health professionals in her small, rural community is limited, as are the funding sources to pay for it, which makes school-based mental-health care vital.
In a survey
conducted by The Prichard Committee
Student Voice Team, Kentucky students expressed a desire for increased access to mental-health services.
Asked open-ended questions about what challenges they were facing in the pandemic, 15% of the students reported a concern related to mental health. Among that group, 35% said they wanted mental-health services but did not have access to them. That’s 5% of the total. The share of students who wanted but lacked access to mental-health services was 15% during the pandemic and 10% before it.
Another indicator that young people are struggling with their mental health is the increase in mental-health screenings done by youth at MHAScreening.org
According to data provided by Mental Health America of Kentucky, there has been a 191% increase in voluntary mental-health screenings among the state’s 4- to 10- year-olds, from 23 done in the first half of 2020 to 67 in the first half of 2021. Among 11-to-17-year-olds, the increase was 231%, from 1,077 to 3,562.
“These screening increases reflect anecdotal evidence that our children and youth have been negatively affected by the pandemic,” Marcie Timmerman, executive director of MHA, said in an e-mail.
Rep. Shane Baker, R-Somerset, asked what parents, educators and the community could do. Riley said all students should receive support through a “tier one” program, and Tyree agreed.
“We don’t want to be reactive. We want to be proactive,” Tyree said. “Tier one means that every single student, every kindergartner, every first grader that comes in the door, before they ever show any kind of problems or at-risk behavior, we’re already talking about articulating their feelings, how to be socially acceptable with the way that they address those feelings, how they can regulate themselves and have social regulation.”
Riley wrapped up her prepared comments with a plea for more mental-health professionals in schools.
“It is my earnest plea that when making crucial funding decisions, you not forget the mental health needs of Kentucky students,” she said. “Any money and resources spent on mental health needs in Kentucky schools is money that will have an infinite return for the investment.”
If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.