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Mental health awareness month: Time to acknowledge the kids are not all right

Observer Reporter – Pediatric experts say mental health-related issues in children are on the rise and that, in fact, the kids are not all right.

Last fall, the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Children’s Hospital Association declared a national state of emergency in child and adolescent mental health.

They called for several things, including increased funding for child and adolescent mental health resources and better care for students with mental health concerns in schools.

“We are seeing more requests for psychiatric evaluations and therapy referrals, numbers are up in the number of emergency visits for kids, probably about 25% to 33%,” said Dr. Gary Swanson, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Allegheny Health Network. “We’re having more teens coming into the ER in crisis.”

At the same time, Swanson pointed out, there are too few providers and hospitals available to meet demand.

“It’s hard to find psych beds. If a child needs an in-patient stay, it can take days or week for a bed to open up, and that wasn’t the case five years ago in Western Pennsylvania,” he said. “The number of crises are increasing, but it’s harder to get services, and that makes it tough.”

Teens are facing some challenges never imagined in the past – social media pressure, school shootings, climate change, and the opioid epidemic, in addition to worries about grades, friends, relationships, and parents.

Youths were increasingly experiencing mental health issues before the COVID-19 pandemic, but the pandemic worsened it.

Rates of childhood mental health concerns and suicide rose steadily between 2010 and 2020, and suicide is the second leading cause of death for youth ages 10 to 24, Swanson noted. One in 5 children struggle with a mental illness.

The soaring rise in mental health issues is one of the reasons that local school districts have made efforts to provide more mental health resources for students.

Since 2011, Bentworth School District has worked with Centerville Clinics to offer mental health counseling and child psychiatric services on campus.

“What we found this year is our mental health program is filled in the elementary, middle and high school. There are close to 50 students, and we’ve been in conversations about expanding it. The need is definitely there,” said Bentworth Superintendent Scott Martin, noting students have an option to meet multiple times throughout the day with any of the 10 mental health professionals from Centerville.

During an eight-year period before the pandemic, the partial program served 88 high school students from 10 school districts and saw hospitalizations drop from 198 to 47; and suicide attempts that resulted in hospitalization fell from 29 to 6.

“We know this program is beneficial to students. If this program wasn’t available, students wouldn’t have the same opportunities – here, they have their mental health needs met and get a true high school experience.”

Burgettstown Area School District implemented a middle school wellness homeroom at the start of the 2021-22 school year where struggling students can take a break and relax. About a dozen students start their day in the room, which features soft light, yoga balls, a diffuser and soothing music, and offers calming activities such as coloring books, fidget toys, modeling clay, kinetic sand, and meditation.

Students also can visit the room midday and at lunch.

“The level of depression and anxiety has definitely increased among kids. In general, their mental health is not OK,” said Burgettstown Middle School guidance counselor Beth Roman, who, along with teacher Elizabeth Bebo, launched the project. “I’ve been wanting to do it for quite some time. We’ve had really positive feedback from the kids.”

Fort Cherry School District is one of eight school districts awarded a Staunton Farm Grant to launch a Students In Action team to support their classmates experiencing mental health concerns.

The students held five mini-sessions for peers aimed at increasing confidence and gaining a positive mindset to achieve goals related to academics, emotional, and social wellness.

The team earned a Gold Excellence banner from the Executive Director of Multiplying Good of Pittsburgh for their service to the school community.

Jefferson-Morgan School District marked Mental Health Awareness Month with several activities, including a Mental Health Awareness 5K Color Run.

Students also participated in Waynesburg University’s Suicide Awareness Walk, and were encouraged to wear green for Mental Health Awareness Day.

At Connellsville Area School District, administrators and staff are working to increase students’ awareness about mental health resources available in the district, including its Student Assistance Program, and accessibility to school counselors and counselors from Chestnut Ridge Counseling Services.

“We’ve seen that COVID has intensified and multiplied mental health issues – the isolation students were forced to be in, the lack of companionship with peers, the lack of being directly involved with teachers,” said Dr. Joseph Bradley, superintendent of Connellsville Area School District. “The positive, though, is that we’re talking about it more, addressing it more. The conversations flow better because we’re talking about it more and telling kids, it’s OK to feel this way, it’s not a weakness.”

AHN has partnered with several school districts to offer CHILL, a school-based therapy program that teaches mindfulness techniques and coping skills to help student better handle pressure and anxiety.

Swanson encouraged children and teens to share their feelings. He commended athletes including Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka for sharing their mental health struggles, and for the Judd sisters to talk about the role mental illness played in the recent death of their mother, Naomi Judd.

“Talking about things is paramount. People think they should bear it in silence, but the reality is, if you let somebody know about what’s troubling you or bothering you, there are people out there to help,” Swanson said. “It takes courage to say, ‘Hey, I’m struggling with feeling sad, worrying about things.’ But there is help out there for families, and help out there for patients.”

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