Schools see rise in student anxiety, depression and other problems and are taking steps to help

COURTESY PHOTO: ERIC WARD FROM UNSPLASH - More teenagers and young adults die from suicide than from cancer, heart disease, AIDS, birth defects, stroke, pneumonia, influenza, and chronic lung disease, combined.        Suicide is the second leading cause of death for kids aged 10 to 24. Educators report students acting out and assaulting each other and teachers more frequently and more violently. And, of course, a good share of the mass shootings plaguing the country have been perpetrated by troubled young men.

Schools, nonprofit organizations and government agencies are striving to identify children's mental health issues earlier and get students better treatment to try to help them lead normal, productive and happy lives and prevent these problems.

Schools are the focus of many of these efforts. Teachers locally and across the state have raised an alarm that student mental health problems are affecting more and more students. It is difficult for students to learn and be successful while experiencing crippling anxiety, depression or coping with bullying.

"We're definitely seeing more of the physical acting out with younger students," said Denise Wright, Centennial School District's director of student services.

Wright also said there is an increase in the number of suicidal ideations or threats, an indication that students are struggling with anxiety or depression.

National statistics show that more than 4.4 million children live with anxiety and 1.9 million kids have been diagnosed with depression.

This rise in youth mental health issues was one of the findings of The Joint Committee on Student Success, a group of legislators from both parties that traveled the state for a year interviewing students, educators, parents and employers.

State Rep. Barbara Smith Warner (D-East Portland) one was of the legislators that toured schools statewide last year and heard concerning stories about students with mental health issues.

"I had made note of a principal who said when he started 20 years ago, it was a big scary thing to do a safety plan for a kid," Smith Warner told an interviewer from OPB, a Pamplin Media news partner. "And he said this year, just in the first five weeks of school, he'd done 20."

Oregon Legislature

The Oregon Legislature addressed the student mental health crisis in a number of ways in the recently adjourned legislative session.

The Student Success Act (HB 3427), which came out of the Joint Committee , will provide $1 billion per year for schools statewide. It specifically encourages schools to use the funds for mental and behavioral supports.

Many districts, including the Gresham-Barlow School District, plan to use part of the money it will get from the Student Success Act for increased mental health staff for district students.

Superintendent Katrise Perera said the district will bolster student mental health staff by hiring a yet-to-be-determined number of social workers and psychologists.

Centennial School District's Wright said the district is assessing its needs for student mental health services and will make decisions with more information.

"We're very excited about the potential here," she said.

In addition, Adi's Act (SB 52) requires school districts to adopt policies to put in place a comprehensive plan to prevent student suicides for students in kindergarten through 12th grade. The bill was signed into law on May 24 by Gov. Kate Brown.

In another move to address mental health, Oregon just became the second state, along with Utah, to allow students to take days off for mental health and count it as a sick day. House Bill 2191 expands the definition of sick days to include mental health.

Wright said educators and school districts are "getting better at identifying" students that need help.

Training teachers

Districts are providing more training for teachers and other educators to spot worrisome behavior in their students and how to handle it in the classroom.

"We're learning how to de-escalate a situation" and trying to determine "is this a mental health piece or is it a result of trauma," Wright said.

Teachers also are learning more about what services can be tapped for kids.

Trillium Family Services provides training in the Centennial District and Multnomah County provides training to all school districts in the county, for example.

Kids struggling might see a school counselor, get a referral to an outside provider such as Trillium Family Services, or a provider from Multnomah County.

Multnomah County has 23 school mental health consultants spread between 37 schools in the county. The consultants have graduate degrees and most are licensed social workers, said Andrea McKee, school based mental health supervisor for Multnomah County.

In East Multnomah County, the consultants serve kids in six high schools, eight middle schools and 11 elementary schools. This includes Parkrose and David Douglas districts, as well as Reynolds, Gresham-Barlow and Centennial.

The East County mental health consultants received 684 referrals for students or families last school year, mostly from school counselors. Of those, 365 students or families enrolled with Multnomah County for mental health services.

"We are essentially an out-patient provider. If a child needs more intensive services, in-patient or home-based care, then we refer them to other agencies," McKee said.

Several years ago the county started a specialized program for kids in primary grades, kindergarten through third grade.

"We started this about two years ago. It rose from the need for more support for the youngest students," McKee said.

"We've seen a lot of barriers to attendance and success" in this group, she added.

School-based health centers also provide mental health services.

Centennial High School houses a Multnomah County Student Health Center open to all students. Reynolds is working on one to be housed at Reynolds High School.

The health centers offer mental health services as well as vaccinations, sports exams and basic health care.

Still, not enough families know that help is available. In a study released last year by nonprofit Oregon Student Voice, only 52% of students said they could easily access mental health resources through their schools.

McKee said the purpose of the county's programs is "helping kids stay in school, find happiness in their lives and get skills — emotionally, socially and academically" to succeed.

Asked if all these efforts are enough, Wright hesitated and said "well, no. Additional funds would make a huge difference."

McKee agreed.

"We could definitely do a better job. There are not enough resources. Each of our consultants is spread across several schools," she said.

Added Wright: "This is not just something schools need to do. We need the community and partnerships" to be committed to kids' mental health.


Sidebar 1

Numbers please

Anxiety and depression in kids has increased.

- 7.1% of children aged 3-17, or about 4.4 million kids, have been diagnosed with anxiety.

- 3.2% of children, aged 3-17, or about 1.9 million kids, have been diagnosed with depression.

For children aged 3-17 years with behavior problems, more than 1 in 3 also have anxiety (36.6%) and about 1 in 5 also have depression (20.3%)

The number of children aged 6–17 years who have ever been diagnosed with either anxiety or depression increased from 5.4% in 2003 to 8% in 2007 and to 8.4% in 2011–2012, the most recent statistics available.

Suicide is the second leading cause of death for people ages 10-24.

More teenagers and young adults die from suicide than from cancer, heart disease, AIDS, birth defects, stroke, pneumonia, influenza, and chronic lung disease, combined.

Each day in the nation, there are an average of over 3,041 suicide attempts by young people in grades nine-12. If these percentages are applied to grades seven and eight, the numbers obviously would be higher.

Four out of five teens who attempt suicide have given clear warning signs

*Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

sidebar 2

Can school counselors keep up?

School counselors have tremendous case loads and it is difficult for them to give struggling students the time necessary to help them.

Student to School Counselor Ratio

- 250 to 1: Recommendation by American School Counselor Association

- 455 to 1: National Average

- 498 to 1: Oregon

- 440 to 1: Gresham-Barlow School District

- 391 to 1: Reynolds School District

- 556 to 1: Centennial School District

- 1,211 students, 0 counselors: Corbett School District

*Source: ASCA and 2017-18 Oregon School Report Cards

Sidebar 3

Signs a student might need help

Of course, all children exhibit some of these behaviors sometimes. But, these could be indications of a child that needs help.

- Problems in school

- Fights with family and friends

- Feeling worthless or hopeless

- Low energy or too much energy

- Mood swings or crying a lot

- Anxiety, fear or panic

- Irritability or anger

- Racing thoughts

- Wanting to harm or kill yourself or others

- Sleeping too much or too little

- Change in eating habits

- Alcohol or drug use

*Source: Multnomah County

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