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‘To Learn, They Have to Feel Safe’

Counselors See Rise in Student Mental Health Needs

When a student walks in Sarah Gammans’ office and closes the door, it’s always possible she might have to ask the question.

Do you have a plan to kill yourself?

And the student might answer, “Not today, Mrs. Gammans. But last week I did.”

More Students Struggling

  • 20 percent of youths age 13-18 live with a mental-health condition
  • 11 percent of youth have a mood disorder
  • 10 percent of youth have a behavior or conduct disorder
  • 8 percent of youth have an anxiety disorder
  • Half of all lifetime mental-illness cases begin by age 14
  • About half of students with mental illness age 14 and older drop out of school
  • Suicide is the third leading cause of death in youth ages 10 to 24

Source: National Alliance on Mental Illness

“You can ask any counselor in Kent County: That’s a conversation that they’ve had,” said Gammans, a counselor at Northview High School.

Conversations about suicide and other student mental-health problems have become more frequent in recent years, said Gammans, an eight-year counseling veteran.

So have referrals by school districts to agencies and hospitals for professional diagnosis and treatment, she said: “We’re all seeing an uptick. We’re all seeing referrals.”

Gammans and other school officials say new kinds of pressures are taking a disturbing toll on today’s students. The omnipresence of social media, phantom bullies lurking on smartphones and relentless pressure to excel are contributing to worrisome levels of student anxiety, depression and a marked rise in self-harm, educators say.

Four student suicides in recent months heightened concerns among school leaders in the Kent ISD. Although anti-bullying and positive-behavior programs have long been in place, officials are looking at more ways to reduce student stress and prevent mental-health crises.

Related story: Why Are Kids Hurting & What Can We Do?

Kenowa Hills Middle School Principal Abby Wiseman says students “need to have somebody they can trust”
Kenowa Hills Middle School Principal Abby Wiseman says students “need to have somebody they can trust”

At Kent Career Tech Center, administrators and instructors have put a lot of effort into meeting students’ mental-health needs. They’ve completed trainings and made efforts to create an environment where everyone takes care of each other, Principal John Kraus said.

“We know that for a student to be able to learn, they have to feel safe and be in a safe environment and that can mean a lot of things,” Kraus said. “They have to feel not just physically safe but emotionally safe.”

Getting to the Why

Although not all agree on the extent of the problem, there is widespread concern that more students are suffering from social anxiety, academic pressure and family problems.

Local mental-health agencies are stepping up services for young people (see related story), and national statistics paint a troubling picture.

A 2013 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported a 24 percent increase in inpatient mental-health and substance-abuse admissions among children during 2007-2010, and increased services and psychotropic medications for teenagers in particular.

That report found 13 to 20 percent of U.S. children experience a mental disorder in a given year, and the prevalence of those problems increased from 1994 to 2011.

While part of the trend locally is an apparent increase in student distress, it’s also because more students feel free to confide their problems, counselors say. For a student thinking about suicide, opening up to an adult literally can be a lifesaver.

“It’s amazing how calm they can be, and how relieved they are to have somebody who is calmly walking through it with them, and then looking to get them help,” Gammans said.

The Tech Center’s Kraus said he is seeing more suicidal behavior and self-cutting than in the past, and more students being referred to places like Pine Rest and Forest View, though the increase is “difficult to quantify.”

Students often come to Tech Center career counselor Lara Roessler’s office to talk about anxiety, depression, school stress, financial issues and relationships. For the last couple years, she’s spent more time counseling students about emotional problems than on career guidance.

Grant Aims to Help Schools Respond to Students’ Needs

Kent ISD representatives are working to better equip educators to detect and respond to student mental-health issues, and to connect families with the care they need.

The organization was awarded a Project Advancing Wellness and Resilience in Education (AWARE) grant to implement strategies and processes for schools to address mental-health needs. Kent ISD is one of only three recipients in the state to receive the grant from the Michigan Department of Education and Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, said Steve Dieleman, Kent ISD project manager.

While the budget and details of how the five-year grant will be spent are still being planned, Dieleman said staff will work with an urban, small suburban and large suburban district. They will create customized services to address individual community needs to better direct students to the help they need.

“We seek to improve connectivity and collaboration between schools and mental-health agencies,” Dieleman said. “One primary focus is on suicide prevention and awareness.”

Counselors have indicated the need for improved identification and referral of students struggling with mental-health issues like anxiety and depression.

Partnering with the Mental Health Foundation of West Michigan, Kent ISD has already piloted Mental Health First Aid Training, which arms educators with how to appropriately respond to a student in distress. Network 180, the community mental-health agency and authority, is the primary partner to implement Project AWARE.

One reason: Students feel comfortable at the school, where they get to know instructors with whom they share interests, she said.

“Instructors have students for two hours every day,” Roessler said. “They really get to know these kids and because of that, kids feel very safe here and they feel safe sharing things that are in their hearts and on their minds.”

So Much Pressure

The need to pay attention to students’ mental-health and emotional needs extends down to the elementary level, where some local districts have added resources. By middle school, students face a barrage of challenges, from finding their identity and fitting in socially to dealing with their changing bodies. Two of the recent four suicides were of middle-school students.

“(Around) sixth grade, they start to realize their parents don’t have all the answers, and they have free will of thought,” said Linda Saum, a counselor at Kenowa Hills Middle School. Students contend with puberty, hormones and “trying to figure out where you fit in in the world.”

Add to that the sometimes lethal power of modern technology, and today’s students are up against a lot, added Principal Abby Wiseman.

“The acceptance of self at this age is just really crucial,” Wiseman said. “Social media doesn’t help with that.” One bad social encounter can hound a student continually on Instagram. It’s crucial for parents to monitor their children’s digital activity, Saum stressed.

“Parents will say ‘I trust my child and I don’t want to break that trust,'” she said. “Trust your middle-schooler to be a middle-schooler, and be involved in what they’re doing – not just their sports and their homework, but their social media.”

Saum doesn’t believe the pressures on today’s middle-schoolers are any different from when she was a student, but says people are more aware of the problems and more involved in helping. Kenowa Middle has programs in restorative justice, conflict management and anti-bullying.But what middle-schoolers need most is an adult they feel free to confide in, she said. “They need ears and eyes, at home and at school.”

Added Wiseman, “They need to have strong relationships. They need to have somebody they trust.”

Support, Triage, Safety

High-school counselors aim to engender that same trust, but the demands can be formidable. Many schools have one counselor to meet the needs of many students — both academic and emotional.

The Tech Center recently increased its network of support. A Kent School Services Network coordinator and a clinician are assigned to connect students with outside resources, including counseling. KSSN, a countywide program, brings social and medical services to students’ schools and homes.

“It’s not the role of a guidance counselor to be a long-time therapist for students. It’s triage,” said Kraus, the principal. “It’s to help direct them to the supports they need. KSSN has added another layer to provide those services in school here.”

Back at Northview High School, Sarah Gammans estimated her time spent on students’ personal problems has increased by about one-third in recent years. Some days she spends half her time on such issues.

Tech Center Principal John Kraus
Tech Center Principal John Kraus

As past president of the West Michigan Counseling Association, Gammans has seen counselors’ conferences focus increasingly on anxiety, depression and suicide. Last year, her school made “several” more referrals to outside agencies than in the past, she said, sometimes resulting in 10-day hospital stays. She’s also heard more discussion of students being diagnosed with bipolar disorder and other severe problems.

She attributes the increases to multiple factors: the prevalence of social media (“a 24/7 pressure in their pocket”); increased pressure to excel academically and to get college scholarships; poor nutrition and lack of exercise; and substance abuse and other family problems.

The school tries to support its 1,200 students with regular staff meetings to monitor and help struggling students, as well as those heart-to-heart discussions behind closed doors.

For some students, school can be a refuge from the personal problems they weather over weekends.

“A percentage of students want to get back to school, and it’s not for the classroom,” Gammans said. “It’s routine and structure, and it’s supportive adults who are accepting them through the door every day.”

Paul Kopenkoskey contributed research to this story


SNN Series on Student Mental Health

American School Counselor Association

Kent ISD School Services Network

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Charles Honey
Charles Honey
Charles Honey is editor-in-chief of SNN, and covers series and issues stories for all districts. As a reporter for The Grand Rapids Press/mLive from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years and its columnist for 20. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today, Religion News Service and Faith & Leadership magazine. Read Charles' full bio


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