Youth mental health is deteriorating in Kansas. This program helps

Takeaways:

  • More and more students are feeling sad and hopeless both in Kansas and across the country
  • Mental health centers help these students get the help they need
  • The state legislature has some ideas for future fixes

Anxiety and depression. Eating disorders. Suicide. Among children.

More than a third of Kansas high school students reported feeling sad or hopeless for a two-week run or more in 2021 — slightly below the national average but nearly double the level recorded a dozen years before the pandemic.

Kansas noticed the growing youth mental health crisis years ago — and made efforts hailed as successes by schools and mental health professionals. But it cannot reach every student.

What worries the children

No single cause explains the decline in young people’s mental wellbeing.

Erika Liesel, a behavioral health specialist with Salina Public Schools, has spent 25 years in the mental health industry. She said parents’ lives matter – issues like family finances, stress at work, drama between relatives or arrests of family members affect everyone.

“Our kids know so much about the adults in their lives and they internalize that and worry so much,” she said in an email.

Then came the regular stresses of school – doing well in classes, maintaining friendships and family connections – which were combined with isolation from the COVID-19 pandemic and the rise of FOMO (fear of missing out) and social media.

“Social media is a beast in itself,” she said. “Children never take a break from each other. They are constantly comparing themselves to others and in some cases to an image of others that is displayed on social media. I tell students all the time that you can’t believe everything that other people say about their lives on different platforms.”

Statistics from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that along with more hopelessness, statistics in general also show that LGBTQ youth, children in same-sex relationships, and women are even more likely to feel worse than just before several years.

Can community health centers in schools help?

“We’re never going to address all the mental health issues and needs of our students,” said Todd Evans, superintendent of Prairie Hills School District in Sabetta in northeast Kansas.

But his district is trying.

Prairie Hills joined the state’s Mental Health Team Intervention Program several years ago. Partners with community mental health centers and school districts. The goal is to work together to get students the mental health treatment they need.

School districts hire mental health professionals like Megan Becker at Prairie Hills. She is not a licensed therapist; she is closer to a counselor who can still meet with students. She also refers students to municipal health centers for more specialized treatment.

Prior to the intervention program, students will need to seek this assistance on their own. Parents would pull their children out of class or perhaps choose not to go because they were worried about the stigma of mental health care. They also may not have the ability to drive to an appointment. Students now miss fewer classes and can attend more therapy sessions.

“I love it. I’m a big advocate for it,” Becker said. “The therapist comes to the school, the parents — they get notifications when the appointments are, but they don’t have to be here. Their kids see the therapist and it doesn’t disrupt anyone’s day. ”

From July 2022 to June 2023, the program served 6,014 students nationwide. Of those students, 39 percent had improved attendance, 48 percent had improved behavior and 41 percent had improved academics, state data show.

Stacey Morris, director of special education for Wichita Public Schools, said her district has seen even more success. In Wichita schools, 72% improved attendance, over 60% improved behavior and over 50% improved grades.

She said the program is breaking down the stigma of mental health, something other areas have seen. Districts said students are more open about going to therapy and are even referring other classmates to the program.

MHIT covers about 80% of students nationwide. It has been expanded every year since its adoption, and every district that wanted to join has been able to do so since August of this year.

State legislation for youth mental health

Many districts and advocates told The Beacon that this program alone cannot reach every student.

Some districts want to see more school staff trained to identify more students with treatment needs — such as youth mental health first aid or courses in applied suicide intervention skills.

Some state lawmakers want to examine waiting lists for mental health treatment beds and find new ways to hire staff to keep beds open. Between 90 and 120 children are waiting to be placed in their homes at any given time. Other lawmakers are concerned about social media and youth depression, though legislative action to address the issue has been limited.

There is also a regular push for Medicaid expansion from Democrats, but the idea is a non-starter for Republicans in control of the Legislature. They say it’s too expensive.

Lawmakers return to Topeka in January and are expected to discuss the issue more.

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