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The school closures, the virtual learning and getting shut off from social contact took its toll in a community that led the state in reopening school doors

Thankfully, mental health is a topic that is regularly finding its way into the news. We say "thankfully" not because it is good for people to suffer from mental health issues but rather because it is good that the issue is getting more spotlight. It has a better chance of getting adequately addressed.

Mental health concerns were once again raised recently by Our Children Oregon. The organization released its KIDS COUNT Data Book, which highlighted troubling data about how mental health problems have risen as youth waded through the pandemic these past couple years. In particular, the closure of schools, the limited social interactions and the fear for their personal health resulted in more instances of anxiety and depression. The KIDS COUNT document went so far as to label it a youth mental health crisis in Oregon.

The national statistics are concerning enough — 1.5 million more kids experiencing anxiety and depression during the first year of the pandemic than the year before it hit. That's a 26% uptick. But in Oregon, that figure rose 40%.

Local residents are likely aware that most of Oregon's schools were closed not only for the remainder of the 2019-20 school year after COVID hit but also through most or all of the 2020-21 year. Crook County was thankfully an outlier, opening full time at the elementary school level when the 2020-21 school year began and middle and high school transitioning from a hybrid in-person/virtual model to full time in-person education by January 2021.

One might assume that Crook County is faring better — maybe they didn't see a spike, right? Wrong? A licensed counselor with BestCare Treatment Services confirmed that local youth were not spared from the spike in anxiety and depression during the past two pandemic years. Like other kids, the school closures, the virtual learning and getting shut off from social contact took its toll in a community that led the state in reopening school doors.

It should be mentioned that the pandemic is not the only catalyst for an uptick in anxiety and depression. Cyberbullying and unrealistic expectations created by social media platforms share the blame as does the expectations that children place on themselves to succeed in academics and sports while juggling a demanding work and home schedule.

So, what's a community to do — how can the parents, schools and local residents do to help its youth overcome the added burden of dealing with anxiety and depression? It's a question every adult should be asking themselves because one metric in which Crook County needs considerable improvement is meeting the mental health care needs of its youth.

According to the KIDS COUNT document, 23% of surveyed eighth graders in Crook County reported "high levels of unmet mental health care needs." Only two other counties were worse. The BestCare counselor acknowledged that Crook County comes well short of providing enough professional mental health care services, and she noted that families don't often know what resources do exist.

But that's only part of the puzzle, isn't it? Even if Crook County had enough professional resources, educators, parents and even neighbors and friends play a role in a child's mental well-being. In the same way adults should be vigilant in detecting child abuse, they should stay attentive and not hesitate to check on a kid who seems to be struggling.

What's needed is a culture that is proactive in detecting and treating mental health issues among the local youth. Anxiety and depression can be debilitating for anybody, but for kids who depend on their parents and adults for many needs, and to figure out the world around them, the consequences of unmet needs could be dire.

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