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Pandemic spawns youth mental health crisis

St. Joseph News-Press - 11/3/2023

Nov. 2—Kids may have made it through the pandemic, but the residual effect of a mental health crisis continues to exert a heavy toll.

The most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that in 2021, more than 42% of U.S. students felt persistently sad or hopeless and 29% experienced poor mental health. And during the second year of the pandemic, mental health-related emergency visits increased by 22.1% among teenage girls.

St. Joseph's Family Guidance Center's Behavioral Health Urgent Care, which opened earlier this year, is seeing the trend, with nearly 35% of its referrals being kids.

"That clinic is treating about 125 patients a month," said Kristina Hannon, co-CEO of the Family Guidance Center. "A third of them are people under the age of 18 coming in to seek care and that percentage goes up if you look at what we consider 'transitional-age' youth, that 18 to 24 demographic. So, we're seeing a lot of people being referred by the education system, by teachers, by guidance counselors and by people within the school that are recognizing that these kids are struggling with anxiety, depression, ADHD and trauma."

According to experts, the pandemic played a key factor in driving mental health problems among young people as they lost significant support with schools shutting down and had other social interactions cut off due to social distancing.

"Students go to school to learn, but school is about much more than education and extracurricular activities," Hannon said. "There is a community of protective adults and supportive adults that are wrapped around our kids at school and they needed that extended contact with supportive adults in their lives."

Hannon said many child abuse situations went unnoticed during the pandemic without daily interaction with mandated reporters such as teachers. Stress happening in the home combined with social media use also contributed to anxiety and low self-esteem in children.

Raychel McCamy, a junior at Central High School, knows all too well what it's like to battle mental health problems while trying to be a high-achieving student. Along with her elective courses, she's enrolled in two dual-credit classes and two advanced placement classes and makes time for being an athlete as well.

"Both of my parents are teachers so I feel like everything is very education-driven in my house," she said. "And on top of that, my sister was valedictorian of her class. Of course, I want to be my own person, but it can be stressful trying to keep up with people around me."

While the current state of students' mental health is hurting their ability to learn and socialize, it is also stressing educators' capacity to manage their classrooms.

"Our younger students are not always as good at being able to verbalize what they have going on or what challenges they're facing," said Elizabeth Chase, coordinator of counseling for the school district. "So we may see those things come out as behaviors that can be disruptive to their own learning.

"For some of our older students, sometimes they talk about it or they've learned some coping skills," she said. "We see that more as sometimes being stressed, overwhelmed and almost being frozen and not able to think about what comes next."

Being 100% attentive in class can be difficult, especially when you have so much on your mind, McCamy said.

"There have been times when I'm zoned out thinking about other things, and as someone who is a really big reader, I always have a book on me so sometimes I'll catch myself reading my book while the teacher's talking just to escape for a little, but then I realize I have to focus," she said.

Amanda Durbin, a behavior interventionist and educator at Edison Elementary School, said teaching students who are dealing with stress, trauma and personal issues in the home is a challenge. She said educators must start with making the classroom a safe space for students.

"It's tough and it's certainly not a walk in the park," Durbin said. "We're spending seven, sometimes eight hours with our students, more than the families are. So having those open lines of communication with parents like, 'Here's what we're doing at school, What are you doing at home? How can we blend these two together for the success of your student?' Because we're here for all areas of that student: mental health, emotional, social and educational."

School leaders are aware that kids may be struggling with many things that are affecting their mental health, which is why they work closely with agencies like the Family Guidance Center to help students get the resources they need.

"I have so much respect for all the teachers that I have encountered within the school districts we work with because they truly go above and beyond to help students," Hannon said. "The district and counseling departments have stepped up and they provide a lot of in-service and a lot of professional development training to their teachers to make sure the teachers know what to look for in terms of signs and symptoms and when it's time to refer. But where to refer becomes the next problem."

In 2017, the Family Guidance Center had three psychiatric providers — two psychiatrists and a nurse practitioner. They now have 10 providers and 13 therapists but still need more, according to Hannon.

"Fortunately, we were able to open our urgent care and this is why," she said. "If you think a child needs to be checked out, please send them to our urgent care or you can always call 9-8-8 for a 24/7 mobile crisis response team that will immediately assist you with receiving care."

Educators believe mental health is one of the most overlooked health problems and it needs to be focused on for students to receive the proper education they need.

"We don't hesitate if our child has a fever or a broken arm," Chase said. "Yet we don't always treat mental health care with the same urgency, and when we don't feel well whether it's physically or medically, it keeps us from being successful in a lot of areas and learning is no different."

School counselors are available at each school in the district and students are encouraged to utilize them as a resource if they're facing any mental health problems.

"It sounds very cliché, but don't bottle things up," McCamy said. "We have a good set of counselors and having that connection with a teacher or at least one staff member is really helpful."

Jenna Wilson can be reached at


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