The COVID-19 pandemic is taking a toll on student mental health, and perhaps no one is more aware of that than Megan Kirk, the Project AWARE coordinator for the Vigo County School Corp.

Vigo County is experiencing increased cases of students in crisis, which could involve a student engaging in self harm or expressing a desire to attempt suicide.

In addition, more young people are being hospitalized for ideations involving self harm or suicide.

Student mental health issues resulting from or made worse by the pandemic "are very serious," said Kirk, who oversees Project AWARE, a multi-year, federally funded grant aimed at better responding to the mental health needs of school children. The Indiana Department of Education oversees the program at VCSC and other districts.

"The isolation of the pandemic is weighing on kids," Kirk said. For many students, "Schooling is non-traditional right now and that makes it difficult for kids who really thrive on the routine."

Also, a lot of families are impacted by the pandemic.

"I think that stress within the home is weighing on kids and creating additional stress for them. They may or may not have the coping skills to help them process and regulate their emotions," she said.

As of Feb. 12, the Vigo County School Corp. had 89 students referred for crisis assessments for 2020-21 and it was on pace to pass last year's numbers," Kirk said. "This year, I am hearing more cases of students attempting suicide — not just having ideations about it."

In October, 61% of Vigo County high school students and 46% of middle school students considered themselves at risk in terms of mental health, according to a survey that collects social/emotional learning data. It was given to all district students.

Project AWARE initiatives have enabled the district to respond to students' needs in different ways, including school-based counseling with community mental health partners.

"We have [agreements] with five different agencies to help meet the need. Some of it is happening in the building, some virtually. It seems to be working well for our students," Kirk said.

The district also is meeting with high school students to hear their thoughts on mental health issues and needs. While those discussions were put on hold because of COVID, "We're picking this conversation up again to see how to support students."

After a VCSC student was lost to suicide late last year, "We had some students who really wanted to do something" to bring greater mental health awareness among their peers, she said.

The district hopes to start some school clubs at the high school level that train students to recognize signs and symptoms of mental health distress and also gives them resources to help others. Hope Squad, a national program, is one possibility, Kirk said.

The district also hopes to train more students in Youth Mental Health First Aid, which helps participants identify, understand and respond to signs of mental health problems. A group of West Vigo High School students trained last year before schools closed due to the pandemic.

So far, 385 VCSC staff also have been trained in Youth Mental Health First Aid. The district offered two trainings a month before COVID and any school staff could sign up; Hamilton Center provided the trainings. "We plan to resume trainings once it's safe to do so," Kirk said.

Toll on youth in Indiana, nation

COVID-19's impact on youth mental health is nationwide, authorities say.

Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention "show the proportion of emergency department visits related to mental health crises has increased dramatically for young children and adolescents since the pandemic started," according to a Nov. 12 Education Week article.

From March through October last year, the share of mental health-related hospital emergency department visits rose 24% for children ages 5 to 11 and 31% among adolescents ages 12 to 17, when compared to the same period in 2019, the CDC reported. The mental health emergencies included stress, anxiety, acute posttraumatic stress disorder, or panic.

The combination of disrupted routines, fear of sickness or family loss, and economic and housing mobility all have proven to be significant stressors for adults as well as children, the Education Week article states.

On Feb. 12, Indiana Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch participated in a roundtable discussion with west-central Indiana educators, mental health professionals and elected officials aimed at ensuring the mental health needs of Hoosiers are met and resources are in place to address those needs. The roundtable took place at Terre Haute South Vigo High School.

“What keeps me up at night,” Crouch said, “is the human cost of this pandemic.”

The purpose of the roundtable was "to start the discussion on what do we do, how can we make a difference, and how can I as lieutenant governor be most impactful in ensuring we have the services and supports to be able to help Hoosiers in this very, very difficult time," Crouch said.

While in Terre Haute, Crouch heard from district leaders and school counselors regarding student mental health issues.

"It is severe and it is growing. The number of students that no longer are thinking about suicide, that are actually putting in place plans to be able to execute [them], is horrifying and very sobering," she said. "It impresses upon on us even more that we've got to not just talk about this problem, but we've got to do something about it."

A current effort to make young people aware of suicide prevention and human trafficking resources could come through hotline phone numbers added to student ID cards.

Indiana Senate Bill 19, co-authored by Jon Ford, R-Terre Haute, is now making its way through the legislature with a focus on reaching middle and high school students. It would require public schools that issue an identification card to students in grades 6 through 12 to include a local, state or national suicide prevention hotline number, as well as a human trafficking hotline number.

“I think the earlier we can start, the better,” Ford said referring to awareness among youth. “Stigma may be one of the priorities that we need to attack on this.”

He is hopeful that amendments can be made to the bill to encourage school corporations to also use social media, text messages and emails to send reminders to students about available resources.

Also participating in the Roundtable was Mike Frey of Sullivan County, whose 18-year-old son, Cade, committed suicide Nov. 24. Frey believes the isolation and lack of interaction due to the pandemic has had an impact on young people and their mental health. Even with mask wearing, it's more difficult to tell if someone is happy or sad, he said.

Now, Frey is dedicating himself to suicide prevention and awareness and is supporting Ford's Senate Bill 19. "If it helps one child ... I believe it will be worth it," Frey has said.

Meeting needs of students, staff

In Vigo County, every school has supports in place that include an elementary social/emotional curriculum as well as behavior interventionists and school counselors. The district also conducts a social/emotional learning survey for students.

But when the risks become greater than what all students need, "We start looking at our community agencies to come in and provide additional support through school-based counseling groups or individual counseling. Maybe they will come in and do social skills training," Kirk said.

School teachers and staff also have faced added stress with the pandemic.

In response, the Vigo County School Corp. — in partnership with a Texas psychologist — has created a staff health and wellness course consisting of six webinars on such topics as managing stress; building connections with students to help them with mental health issues; and overall self care.

When students are exposed to more trauma, teachers feel the impact as well as they try to help their students. "Self care is very important," Kirk said.

Student mental health is also a priority for the Indiana Department of Education, which oversees the Project AWARE program.

Currently, 11 school districts are involved with Project AWARE, including Vigo. The districts create models of effective mental health practices for use across Indiana. Also, the grant allows IDOE to provide resources, conferences, and tools statewide to support social/emotional learning and mental health.

"As we’re tackling COVID-19, it’s critical that students and staff are fully connected with their school communities. Schools across the state have taken that mission to heart, and the Indiana Department of Education is proud to partner with schools to provide resources supporting social and emotional well-being for students and school staff," said Holly Lawson, IDOE spokeswoman.

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