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Idaho’s approach to school mental health was already scattered. Then COVID hit.
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Idaho’s approach to school mental health was already scattered. Then COVID hit.

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Declo school construction

Debbie Critchfield talks in September 2016 about the needed renovations at Declo Jr. High School.

NAMPA — Marie felt like the world was caving in.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the Nampa sophomore was glad for a break from high school. Rest turned to agitation as school resumed online, but her regular routine did not. Marie’s social circle shrank from 20 classmates to the eight people in her boyfriend’s home, where she had taken up residence only months before. As she played with his siblings and cooked meals with his family, she worried about her own. Her mother and brother were homeless, sometimes turned away from shelters because of COVID-19 protocols. Guilt over her stable situation joined the chorus of worry and isolation.

Marie asked her school therapist if they could increase Zoom visits to once a week.

“There was just a lot going on in my life. I needed a little bit more support,” said Marie, who asked that EdNews use her middle name. “After our meetings, I usually feel a lot better.”

Idaho’s need for youth mental health support is extensive, urgent and inflamed by COVID-19. But access to the kinds of supports that helped Marie is not universal.

The Gem State is consistently ranked at the top of national lists for youth suicides, and the bottom for youth access to mental health care — and that was before a global pandemic disrupted in-person services and piled isolation and anxiety on already burdened youth.

Left unaddressed, mental health challenges can impact a student’s engagement, behavior and academic success. School is one of the most likely places for mental health needs to be detected, and educators can play a key role in intervening and connecting families with critical services.

States across the country have put increased focus on mental health in schools for several years. Momentum is building in Idaho, but the state lacks a cohesive plan to ensure services from district to district. Educators say they need time, funding and clear expectations for how to help students’ mental wellbeing.

Some districts have stepped up to improve their students’ connections with mental health services. Promising efforts were budding in pockets of the state when the pandemic dealt a blow, overloading schools, students and mental health providers.

For all of its challenges, COVID-19 has heightened awareness around student mental health. Youth are speaking up about their needs. Adults are listening. Education leaders are optimistic the pandemic could be a catalyst for expanding help in schools.

“I don’t think I can overstate the urgency of this particular topic,” said Debbie Critchfield, president of the State Board of Education.

One in five youth has a mental health concern

National figures suggest that one in five youth have a diagnosable mental health concern, but only about 30 percent of those students will ever get treated. Students could be up to 10 times more likely to seek help if services are offered in school.

Idaho has no requirements that a school provide mental health services for all students. Teaching “social-emotional learning,” which includes key skills like recognizing and regulating emotional stress, is likewise optional. Other states like North Dakota, have a dedicated framework for addressing youth behavioral health, or expectations for social-emotional learning benchmarks, like Nevada.

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Whether an Idaho student can access services at school depends largely on where they live, and the outlook of their district leaders.

Most superintendents believe that providing mental and behavioral health services helps students feel safe at school and helps them learn, according to a survey commissioned by the State Department of Education. But only 60 percent said they use some kind of behavioral health practice or strategy, like trauma-informed practices, to respond to all students’ needs. Less than a third have a structured behavioral health program, with goals, evaluations and outcomes.

Rural districts and charter schools are less likely to provide behavioral health services than urban ones.

Without a uniform approach, students’ experiences can vary from district to district, even from school to school.

Brock, a high school senior who manages a handful of mental health diagnoses — including anxiety, post traumatic stress and conduct disorder — used to feel overwhelmed and trapped in class. Anxiety would build in his chest like the desperate frustration of being late for a plane or an important meeting, and anything could set him off. At his North Idaho elementary school, teachers let Brock visit his school counselor to decompress. In middle school, Brock says he wasn’t allowed to take those breaks. He started to fight with other staff and students, ran away from school, and was suspended four times in one year. The experience changed Brock’s attitude toward school completely, his mom said.

“They didn’t see me as a kid who needed help. They saw me as a trouble maker,” Brock said.

Experts tell Education Week that trauma and upheaval from the pandemic could affect youth mental health for years to come. Teens across the country report that their mental health concerns have increased, they’re getting less sleep and having more issues engaging with school.

Students of color could have unique needs as they grapple with a pandemic that has had a disproportionate impact on their communities, and an emotional year of racial reckoning. Janine Jones, a University of Washington professor, says schools should apply culturally responsive mental health practices, to honor students’ racial identities and ensure children of color are not overlooked.

“Each student comes to the classroom with a different background, and it’s important that we try to create an environment where each student has not just the opportunities for success, but an environment that nurtures their success,” said Eric Studebaker, student safety and engagement director at the State Department of Education. “That’s what we’re doing when we talk about addressing the behavioral health and wellness needs of our students.”

Time, money and support

Most Idaho districts and charters say they need time to implement behavioral health plans, or funding for staff dedicated to student mental health. Remote school districts struggle to connect students to care when there are few professionals nearby. Others say they’re getting “mixed messages” from legislators about the role schools should play in addressing students’ mental and behavioral needs.

Top education leaders have encouraged school districts to address mental health in recent years. Gov. Brad Little recommended increasing professional development for teachers and giving schools more resources. The State Department of Education is talking to stakeholders about potential next steps for mental health in Idaho schools.

But last year, Republican legislators on the House Education Committee offered a public rebuttal, pushing against a $1 million budget request for social-emotional learning, training and resources. They compared teaching behavior management to social control out of a dystopian novel and said interpersonal skills should be taught by parents.

“It seems like everything is flipping. Now we’re going to deal with things that should be dealt with in the home and then the home is going to try to teach math,” Idaho Falls Rep. Barbara Ehardt said during a committee meeting last year.

Educators say they just can’t ignore students’ needs. Teachers are faced with climbing rates of depression, students reporting self-harm as early as elementary school, and now, new pandemic stressors.

“Whether or not I believe it is our job, whether or not I think in the perfect world it should be under our banner of responsibility doesn’t matter. We serve kids as they show up. That is our job,” said Shelley Bonds, an administrator in Nampa. “Our kids are showing up with this — we have to address it. We’re negligent if we don’t. And I think we’re negligent as human beings if we look the other way.”

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