Making mental health an academic priority
Suicide is the second leading cause of death for kids ages 10 to 24. Educators report students are 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 the students better treatment to try to help them lead normal, productive and happy lives and prevent these disasters.
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.
A national priority
National statistics show that nationwide more than 4.4 million 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 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."
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 Join 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 Oregon Trail School District, plan to use part of the money it will get for increased mental health supports for students.
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.
Taking time out
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, early on referred to as "Chloe's Bill," expands the definition of sick days to include mental health.
HB 2191 had some Sandy inspiration, with now graduate Derek Evans leading the student effort to introduce and advocate for the legislation.
The effort began with lobbyists from Providence Health Services hosting a townhall for students. The representatives asked what student's saw as a problem in schools.
"We came to the conclusion that the best thing we could do for the students were mental health days and annual wellness checks," Evans told a Pamplin Media Group reporter. The latter effort is still in the works.
Evans purpose for getting involved with Students for Healthy Oregon and advocating for the bill had very personal origins.
"In February 2019, I had a lot of stress going on," he noted. Evans kept a full schedule while attending Sandy High, acting as the student body vice president and participating in multiple sports and afterschool activities. "You only have so much time as a student. You're at school about seven hours a day, then possibly have two or three hours of school activities and then homework. You don't really have free time."
Evans was officially diagnosed with anxiety and depression.
"I had a lot on my plate and it ended up being a lot more than I could handle," he said. "Some days my mom would call me out with a cold when I could've taken a mental health day. Every time I went back I felt better and more focused."
Evans has older siblings who experienced similar mental health issues when they were in school, and also two younger siblings who've yet to enter Sandy High. Though Evans was within months of graduating when he started advocating for HB 2191, he wanted the legislation for those after him, including his siblings.
"I got very involved in it because I felt like it was something that I would benefit from as a student, but that the other students would benefit as well," he noted. "I want (my siblings) to have all of the resources they need. It's pretty dangerous not to give people the time they need to just be human and not working 24/7. It was a big day when the bill passed."
Next on Evans plate, besides starting classes at University of Oregon's Honors College in public policy analysis and Spanish, is working with Students for Healthy America to take HB 2191 national.
Making health accessible
While many children who seek mental health services would have to find a private provider, in Sandy the School Based Health Center offers access to a licensed professional counselor. Sandy has had its center since 2012.
"Mental health has become a priority nationwide," said Aaron Bayer, Oregon Trail superintendent. "For us, it was a no-brainer when we had the opportunity to bring a mental health professional to the school-based health center. Any easy way to get more support out to our general population. I think any time you can provide wraparound support for kids, that's putting them in the position to be successful academically."
"Sometimes when students can take time out once a week and talk about their stressers, they're more able to focus on their school work and improve their academic performance," noted Batinah Dawdy White, licensed professional counselor for the Sandy School Based Health Center. Dawdy White has been with the center for almost three years.
When asked the prevalent question, "Are occurrences of mental illness increasing or is willingness to talk about mental health just increasing?" Dawdy White said "I think it's both."
"This generation has grown up with a lot of uncertainty about the future and with mass shootings," she explained. "It's difficult in the midst of that to find much hope."
Dawdy White added that is why having mental health services on campus at Sandy High is so beneficial. Several of her referrals are actually coming from the on-site nurse practitioner, Kaley Archibald Goers, from Goers' effort alongside the county to enact the Zero Suicide Initiative.
"There's a convenience factor with the center," Dawdy White said. "Parents who are fine with their kids going to therapy but would struggle getting there because of taking time off work can send their kids to the center on campus. And for students, when anyone is struggling or having a difficult time, just knowing there is someone close by who is willing and able to talk to you and who knows how to help, can make or break a situation in someone's life."
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