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There's a mental health crisis in our schools and districts are prioritizing help

Posted at 7:55 PM, Feb 10, 2023

There’s a metaphor in the halls of our nation’s schools about how the moments of commotion and turbulence in between class mirror the inner narratives of many of the students who fill those hallways.

According to a 2022 study from the CDC, 37% of high school students experienced poor mental health during the pandemic. 44% said they felt persistent hopelessness, 20% said they had seriously considered suicide, and 9% said they had attempted to take their own life — numbers all higher than they were the year before.

“I still struggle with anxiety every day and the pandemic didn’t help with that at all,” said Kacy Jones, a junior at Grandview High School in Aurora, Colorado.

“I just kind of felt hopeless,” added Riley Cuthbert, a junior at the school. “There were a lot of times where it looked like it was getting better and then it just got worse.”

The increased instances of mental health issues among our nation’s kids has prompted schools to tackle the issue in ways they never have before.

In late January, New York City Mayor Eric Adams announced he planned to offer free mental tele-health services to all high school students in the district.

In 2021, the Cherry Creek School District in Colorado did the same as did several other school districts around the nation.

“It’s hard to see [our students struggling], you know,” said Tara Smith, a teacher at Grandview High School. “We want to help, but we can only help so much, right?”

In 2021, Smith started teaching a course called "Sources of Strength," an elective suicide prevention course for students at Grandview. The class heralds everyday accomplishments of students as it teaches them resiliency and opens the door for thoughtful discussion.

“When I got out of graduate school, the idea of school based mental health was kind of a mystery or an unknown for most people- they didn’t understand why you would need mental health in schools and now it’s in a lot of districts front and center,” said Steve Nederveld, director of mental health for the Cherry Creek School District.

Since just a year ago, the Cherry Creek School District has bolstered its mental health budget by $1.5 million. It’s a drop in the bucket compared to the $1 billion Congress has dedicated to districts nationwide as part of the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act announced in October. The money will help fund initiatives like Sources of Strength over the next five years.

“What we’re learning from students is more prevention and more social emotional learning is what they’re asking for,” said Nederveld.

“Instead of waiting for a crisis to happen or a student really struggling, we’re doing a pilot to see if we can screen all of our students on a social emotional level of what are they learning, what are they asking for and can they identify someone in school that they’d go to if they needed help for some reason,” said Nederveld.

Smith and her colleague Connie Aguero are already seeing the impact.

“Last year when we had graduation, we were so excited to see the girls graduate,” said Aguero. “We had one [student] — she’s actually going to be a psychologist and I tell her all the time that one day she’ll be my boss.”

In addition to Sources of Strength, the Cherry Creek School District is also in the process of building the Traverse Academy, a mental health facility managed by the district. It is being built with $15 million from a $150 million bond measure that voters approved in the 2020 election. Construction is underway on the facility at the district’s Joliet campus, and it is slated to open in the fall of 2023.