JEFFERSON COUNTY, Mo. — From years of COVID-19 isolation to recent mass school shootings, many school officials are saying anxiety among kids has reached an all-time high, and schools are pleading for help.
Rates of suicide, self-harm, anxiety and depression among adolescents are up, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Jefferson R-7 School District Intervention Specialist Steve Horn said the May 24 shooting at a Uvalde, Texas, elementary school ignited a fire within him to make mental health resources for students a priority.
This comes as he’s seen an increase in student deaths he believes could have been prevented.
“The increase that we saw across the county happened a lot in 2018, 2019. There was an increase in school-age suicides in our county," he said.
The youngest at the time was under 15 years old. Over the years, he’s seen kids as young as 11 struggle with suicidal thoughts.
“We've seen a great increase in anxiety, depression among our school-age population," Horn said.
Motivated by all of this, Horn helped develop a new mental health tool.
A waiver signed by a parent or guardian allows students to utilize the mental health self-screening tool. It asks students to answer various questions and, based on their answers, assigns them a risk level. Once a student has completed the screening, it alerts a counselor and connects the student to other appropriate resources.
It's a tool that has been years in the making. It's part of a new pilot program using about $700,000 in local, state and federal grants secured by the county’s health department.
“It identifies the most appropriate services based on their level of need," he said.
“And if they don't have insurance?” the I-Team's Paula Vasan asked.
“It would filter out all services that are available to them," Horn said. “It identifies any school based services that are available to them, which would be available.”
The new mental health resource is being slowly rolled out. In the fall, it could be available to about 13,000 students in Jefferson County.
What Horn said his school realized is that about one in five students have thought about suicide. Administrators wanted to intervene earlier. The result is a resource Horn said is revolutionizing how they identify when students need help.
Nine-year-old Nora Metiva is one of those students. Chelsea Koenig is her therapist. She sees her for an hour at school each week.
“What does Ms. Chelsea mean to you?” Vasan asked.
“A good friend," said Metiva, a fourth grader at Telegraph Intermediate School.
Metiva said her school therapist helps her navigate life with autism. Social interaction is a struggle for her, and it can make her anxious. Koenig teaches her coping skills. Having this resource at her school has meant convenience and more support.
Research shows the average wait time for a behavioral health therapist in the U.S. is 48 days, according to the National Council for Mental Wellbeing, a nonprofit.
Therapists on campus have meant less red tape and quicker care. Nora was paired with Koenig in less than a week.
“What do you think every school would benefit by having something like this?” Vasan asked.
“I think they would see a big decline in serious matters like suicide, a decline in depression and anxiety," Koenig said.
One of her biggest obstacles to therapy is stigma, Koenig said. But, it's not among the kids. It's among their parents.
“They’re scared," Koenig said. "They don't want their kids to be judged by anybody. They don't want others to know what's going on, but it's all confidential."
The other major obstacle is funding.
“I would love to see the governor then create a line item in the state budget to assist schools in providing school based mental health services for their students," Horn said.
He believes more funding would help fill a desperate need. Research shows about half of U.S. kids with mental health issues do not get treatment, and Horn said that's simply unacceptable.
“It's about simplifying this process that in my mind, has kind of been overcomplicated. It's what is the need? How do we fill that need and what's what's the easiest way to get there?” he said.
The Governor’s Office declined our interview request. Officials with the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education said it’s up to schools to figure out how they want to divvy up resources available to them and prioritize mental health. But many school leaders have said that’s the problem because it forces schools to choose between educational and mental health needs.
The state department of education spokesperson Mallory McGowin made the following statement to 5 On Your Side:
While local school districts often have to prioritize funding for mental health supports and programs alongside other efforts in their locally established budgets, there are a number of resources, specifically through federal relief funds, that school districts can access at no cost to them.
A national survey of more than 2,000 U.S. adults conducted online on behalf of the National Council for Mental Wellbeing found that 43% of U.S. adults who said they needed substance-use or mental-health care in the past 12 months did not receive that care, and numerous barriers to access stand between them and needed treatment.
Approximately 1 in 6 youth made a plan to attempt suicide in the past year — a roughly 44% increase since 2009. That means a young person you know has likely considered taking their own life somewhat recently, according to a spokesperson at Mental Health First Aid, an awareness and education program that teaches individuals to identify, understand and respond to signs and symptoms of a mental-health or substance-use challenge to avoid it becoming a crisis.
According to the National Library of Medicine, the median number of years between the onset of a person’s first mental health challenge diagnosis and first treatment contact is 11 years. However, the longer the delay in getting help, the more difficult recovery can be.
The Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has a list of mental health resources for school staff and students and an ABC guide to children's mental health. The department also offers trauma-informed treatment models.
The Missouri School Board Association’s Center for Education Safety is a statewide resource available to all Missouri schools. The center offers technical assistance, training and other resources on school safety.
The Missouri Behavioral Health Council has a network of youth behavior health liaisons that community schools can tap into to help improve outcomes for students with behavioral health needs.
Missouri’s Fiscal Year 2023 budget included the following mental health-related initiatives:
- $2.5 million for school safety programs.
- $1.9 million for school safety application programs for all school districts statewide that would provide 911 services and on- and off-duty officers through a law enforcement alert system.
- $1 million for safe school programs and behavioral health services.
- $100,000 for a mental health coordinator at the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
If you or someone you know is struggling or in crisis, help is available. Call or text 988 or chat 988lifeline.org.
Anyone seeking treatment for mental health conditions should call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s National Helpline at 800-662-HELP (4357) or visit findtreatment.samhsa.gov.