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Measures for behavioral health are a priority for the school district as students navigate in-person learning once again. 

Under a blanket of fluorescent lights, student school board representatives and high school juniors Alicia Li and Emily Zou sat alongside the Lake Oswego School Board Aug. 31 and shared one of the biggest priorities for the 2021-22 academic year: student mental health.

With schools across Lake Oswego inviting students back to classrooms, the students said, underlying battles of stress, pressure and bubbling mental health concerns quickly follow as students navigate the aftermath of staying at home for nearly two years.

"Social isolation has been proven time and time again to be very detrimental, especially for high schoolers," Zou said. "I think the kids are happy to be back. But I mean, we're having a few little road bumps, which is expected."

The numbers are alarming — Oregon is ranked 47th in the country when it comes to youth mental health, according to data from Mental Health America. Even more unnerving, 51% of 11- to 17-year-olds in the state have experienced thoughts of suicide or self-harm.

As September marks Suicide Prevention Month, officials at the Lake Oswego School District said they are using new and existing behavioral health measures to prevent children and teens from falling between the cracks.

Implementing support

The school district has implemented mental health resources on school campuses for the past several years, according to Communications Director Mary Kay Larson.

Starting this year, two social workers -- in addition to the ones already present at high schools -- will support elementary and middle school students.

The school district also developed a wellness team, made up of 32 counselors, psychologists and social workers. With the team in place, the district has been able to more efficiently address students' needs, particularly in the midst of COVID-19, according to Sanders.

Suicide prevention

The pandemic acted as a catalyst for the school district in determining the number of students who are struggling with mental health issues.

"The actual suicide rate for adolescence has gone down during COVID for Oregon, but not in Clackamas County — it went the other direction," said Jim Sanders, the district's clinical psychologist.

To foster connection with high school students, the district created a full-blown screening process on suicide for all high school students. About 2,300 students out of the 2,400 in the district participated.

It is one of the first of its kind, said Sanders.

The information gained from the screening survey was cultivated into a toolkit that will be presented at the state's suicide prevention conference in October — with the hope that other districts will emulate the screening, according to the district.

The screening was an optional form sent out to high schoolers and their parents in the spring,

It included a series of questions and, depending on the answers, students in need — those who disclosed they'd had suicidal thoughts, for instance — were connected to a qualified behavioral health resource.

"We were able to find individuals that we would have probably not found otherwise, and connected them with people who can get them support," Sanders said.

In an effort to revamp their suicide prevention program, the entirety of Lake Oswego school staff are trained in suicide prevention. And almost 160 households have been trained through the Question, Persuade, Refer (QPR) suicide prevention program — a curated training designed to coach individuals to recognize and respond to suicidal behaviors.

"I would characterize it as, it's not just a theme of the week, (but) really setting the tone for the rest of the year, and many years to come," Larson said.

'The whole child'

In preparation for the 2021-22 school year, the district adopted a curriculum that creates a path for students to foster social and emotional skills.

After a year-long process with key stakeholders, such as parents and students, the district landed on "Character Strong," which teaches students skills in topics like self-awareness, decision-making and forgiveness.

Another up-and-coming measure is "Sources of Strength," a peer-run group where youth discuss with one another the issues they are facing. More significantly, they learn how to provide support to one another.

"It's one of the few programs actually out there in the United States that has outcomes that support it as a suicide prevention program," said Sanders.

In the next couple weeks, Lake Oswego High School will open a "Zen den," a grant-funded space where students can take time to be with themselves and collect their emotions. The Zen den will be an extension of the counseling department and will be supplied with furniture and decor designed to calm students.

"This is another opportunity to practice some of the social emotional learning skills that they're learning in classes," said school counselor Michelle Tyler.

Beyond the school doors

But stakeholders in the district underline the importance of stretching awareness and prevention measures beyond the classroom.

Zou and Li recommend parents continue to check in with their children and just listen.

"I think one of the easiest things, but also one of the best things, to do is just to listen and really absorb the information," Zou said. "A lot of times, parents are very focused on finding the solution for their student's problems, which is very understandable … but I think in the moment, just listening and striving to really understand what situation your child's in, and what emotions they're feeling, before trying to immediately jump in to find a solution, can be really helpful."

The student representatives also emphasized allowing students to focus on their short-term goals, instead of long-term items like grades and college admissions.

"It's really hard to achieve whatever you want to do if you're not in a good mental state," Li said.

Suicide Prevention Hotline: 800-273-8255

Clackamas County Crisis Line: 503-655-8585

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