Schools address arising student mental health needs

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CULVER, Ind. - There are quite a few studies and polls out there with some pretty alarming information regarding student mental health.

For example, out of over 3,000 high school and college students surveyed by mental health nonprofit Active Minds, almost 60% of them said their mental health has worsened because of the pandemic. Almost 20% said it was significantly worse.

Knowing this, local health professionals are doing everything they can to make sure students continue to feel comfortable.

"Our main concern in august was the number of students that had anxiety," Hannah Shipley, the Culver Middle School counselor said.

For over a year the spotlight has mostly shined on physical health needs during this pandemic, but mental health has been a problem too, especially inside Michiana school districts.

"It happened, I think, maybe two days before school started," Missy Trent, the Culver High School counselor said. “We had a student who died by suicide.”

"We saw a lot of students come forward and talk about their emotions, and if they were having similar thoughts and feelings, maybe they were feeling… they had thoughts of suicide," Shipley said. “Students would come to me and talk about that often.”

According to the CDC in a typical year, just over 7% of children ages 3-17 have diagnosed anxiety. That’s about 4.4 million children in the United States. Just over 3% have diagnosed with depression which equals about 1.9 million children.

“I think we've always needed to put more focus on mental health, because like I said, our students have been struggling for a while. And I think with covid that people started noticing that," Trent said.

Experts believe the pandemic made mental health discussions more acceptable and comfortable for people to have.

“I think a lot of students then started saying hey I'm also depressed, and they came to us and would talk about their depression more than trying to keep it away,” she said.

Tana: So it's not that you're maybe not seeing more kids, showing these symptoms but more kids are speaking up?

"Yes, they are. Yes, very much so," Trent said.

But even with more kids coming forward, experts say some can still be left behind.

Tana: eLearning you don't see your teacher face-to-face, the teacher really cannot tell if someone's dealing with things through a screen, how does that make it even more of a challenge to get and reach out to these kids?

“I think what we focused on in that is making sure that the teachers, school counselors, social workers are really equipped that they, they can look for as much as possible, they can screen, they can be aware of what are some of the typical patterns, and that we can give them the resources so they can still be that front line," Rebecca Shetler-Fast, the Director of Elkhart County’s System of Care said.

For students who already have mental health challenges, the pandemic didn’t help.

In a U.K survey done by mental health charity Young Minds, 83% of participants under age 25 who already had a mental illness history said the pandemic made their conditions worse and 26% said they were unable to access mental health support.

"That was one of the things when I would have students come in here and I would say are you still seeing your counselor that you used to see after school and stuff, they would say well no because of covid we couldn't go. So those were some of the issues too," Trent said.

"If I've had a mental health condition and sort of haven't gone in as much or maybe I've stopped my medication so those kinds of things may make you know next year some time where I need to recalibrate," Shetler-Fast said.

An absence of care, experts say could mean more kids are falling through the cracks.

"Yeah, I think the toughest part is for the kids who weren't showing up for virtual school," she said. “Teachers or school counselors or principals have gone to houses and tried to check in with kids or send someone out to do a wellness check, but we, we probably won't know until next year. Really what those what that looks like for those kids.”

Josh Pugh is an Assistant Principal at Culver Community Schools but his biggest responsibility is being a dad, and that’s helped him navigate some of these tough issues.

“I think it's just focusing on their well-being and making sure that they're letting us know as parents if they are doing okay," Pugh said.

Tana: Have you seen any issues that you maybe haven't seen before, when it comes to depressed thoughts or anxiety with any of your kids?

“I don't think it's been depression or anxiety I think it's been more frustration," he said.

Tana: Have you had a conversation with your kids at all this year saying you know like, hey, we know it's been tough. We're here?

"Absolutely. You know we have tried to make sure that both of our students or both of our kids know that, you know at any time they can talk to us," he said.

And schools are reimagining the way they reach out to kids. From expanding the number of trained professionals a child can confide in.

"When schools went virtual for a while. There was a drop in child abuse reports because teachers are typically the frontline of reporting for child abuse," Shetler-Fast said. “160 new reporters trained in child abuse prevention in spring and that was mobilized in about a month,”

To activating outside agencies for extra help.

"We have somebody from Bowen center and Four-County who will come to the school and meet with a student. If they need that extra one on one," Trent said. "That was a new thing that happened this year for us.”

With more tools under their belt and more attention paid to mental health, schools are making sure students can keep their focus on learning.

“I think it's really important for them to be in school and to have the opportunity to have structure throughout their day, and it is their safe place," Shipley said.

According to experts younger kids are more likely to address how they feel even if they don’t understand it, while older kids are more aware of their feelings, they are less likely to come out and talk about it. Of course, it’s important to reach out either way.

Any questions about this article? Reach out to us at Learningcurve@abc57.com!

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