More Kansas teens feel sad or hopeless, but a school program is helping thousands

By Blaise Mesa/The Wichita Beacon

Takeaways:

  • More students are feeling sad and hopeless both in Kansas and nationwide
  • Mental health centers are helping get those students the help they need
  • The state Legislature has some some ideas for future fixes

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

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

Kansas spotted the growing youth mental health crisis years ago — and deployed efforts hailed as successes by schools and mental health professionals. But it can’t reach every student.

What worries kids

No singular reason explains the decay in youth mental well-being. 

Ericka Lysell, a behavioral health liaison with Salina Public Schools, has spent 25 years in the mental health industry. She said parents’ lives matter — issues like family finances, work stress, 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 come the regular stresses of school — doing well in classes, maintaining friendships and family connections — that were coupled with isolation from the COVID-19 pandemic and the rise of FOMO (fear of missing out) and social media. 

“Social media is a beast on its own,” she said. “Kids don’t ever get a break from one another. They are constantly comparing themselves to others, and in some cases, an image of others that is being displayed on social media. I constantly tell students that you cannot believe everything that others are saying about their lives on various platforms.” 

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics show that along with more hopelessness, statistics generally also indicate that LGBTQ youth, kids in same-sex relationships and women were even more likely to feel worse than they did just a few years ago. 

Can community health centers in schools help?

“We will never address all the mental health issues and needs for our students,” said Todd Evans, superintendent of the Prairie Hills School District in Sabetha in northeast Kansas. 

But his district tries. 

Prairie Hills joined the state’s Mental Health Intervention Team Program a few years ago. It partners 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 liaisons, like Megan Becker in Prairie Hills. She isn’t a licensed therapist; she’s closer to a counselor who still can meet with students. She also refers students to the community health centers for more specialized treatment. 

Before the intervention program, students would have to seek out that help on their own. Parents would pull their kids out of class or perhaps opt not to go because they worried about the stigma of mental health care. They also might lack the ability to drive to an appointment. Now, students miss fewer classes and are able to attend more therapy sessions. 

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

From July 2022 through June 2023, the program served 6,014 students statewide. Of those students, 39% had improved attendance, 48% had improved behavior and 41% had improved academics, state data shows. 

Stacie Morris, director of special education for Wichita Public Schools, said her district has seen even greater success. In Wichita schools, 72% have improved attendance, over 60% have better behaviors and over 50% raised their grades. 

She said the program breaks down the stigma of mental health, something other districts have seen. The districts said students are more openly talking about going to therapy and even referring other classmates to the program.  

MHIT covers around 80% of students statewide. It has expanded every year since its passage, and every district that’s wanted to join has been able to, as of August this year. 

State legislation for youth mental health

Multiple districts and advocates told The Beacon that this program alone can’t reach every student. 

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

Some state lawmakers want to study waitlists for mental health treatment beds and find new ways to recruit staff to keep beds open. Between 90 and 120 children are waiting to get into residential treatment at a given time. Other lawmakers are concerned about social media and youth depression, though legislative action to address that issue is limited. 

There’s also the regular push for Medicaid expansion by Democrats, but that idea is a nonstarter to Republicans controlling the Legislature. They say it’s far too expensive. 

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

Blaise Mesa is based in Topeka, where he covers the Legislature and state government. He previously covered social services and criminal justice for the Kansas News Service. He also worked as a reporter for the Topeka Capital-Journal.


This article was republished here with the permission of: The Wichita Beacon