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Study shows confidence low in schools' ability to address youth mental health

youth mental health
Posted at 3:03 PM, Jan 03, 2023
and last updated 2023-01-03 15:03:08-05

JACKSON, Ms. — Adolescents who spent any time in a high school during the pandemic can tell you they most likely had to grow up a little more quickly than generations before.

"Around this time, I had a friend commit suicide," said Isabella Cloy, a recent high school graduate. "How did I not know? Why couldn't, why didn't she call text, reach out to anyone?"

Even though she's a freshman in college now, the last few years of instability have left mental scars.

"I've been through depression, suicide thoughts," she admitted. "I thank God that I got through it because I would not be here today had it not been for my mom. But I told her about it. But you know, it's kind of hard telling your parents. How do you tell your mom that you don't wanna live anymore?"

She opened up about the toughest years of her life while at NAMI Mississippi, where she volunteers because even though she's dealing with a lot, she knows connections are what help those in need.

"I was trying to reach out to all my other friends, 'hey, are you okay? Do you need to talk about it? Is there anything I can do?'" she said.

"It's just a lot that our young adults are needing in terms of mental health and it's not necessarily there and what is available," said Sitaniel Wimbley, executive director of NAMI Mississippi.

The NAMI branch provides mental health help and conversations for young adults. She says Cloy is one of the lucky ones who was able to find help, even though it's getting increasingly harder to do.

"The school systems don't necessarily have the funding to help the way it's needed, but they're doing what they can," she said.

According to numbers released in December by Effective School Solutions, an organization that provides mental health assistance to schools, many school administrators say the mental health problem in schools is getting worse.

Thirty-six percent of both urban and suburban schools say students' mental health is worse now than it was in 2021, and 55% of rural schools say the same.

While 40% of school administrators say they are confident in their district's ability to handle the need, only 16% of parents agree.

However, the top concern of both parents and school staff is identifying the needs of students and having enough staff to support them.

Cloy says she wishes better systems were in place before she lost her friend

"Why wait until someone's driven to suicide? To have someone to reach out to other people who feel like they're driven to suicide? It's too late for that one particular person," she said.

The lack of resources is a national problem. The National Association of School Psychologists say only 8% of school districts meet their recommendation of one psychologist per 500 students and only 26% of schools meet the American Association of School Counselors' recommendation of one counselor per 250 students.

Meanwhile, CDC numbers say that 40% of teens reported experiencing high levels of mental distress at the beginning of this year.

"Then, on the other side, if you're trying to get private help for your child, there's waiting and then there's insurance problems because I know people who struggled," said Sitaniel.

Sitaniel says parents who might be left without resources can call or text the new 988 suicide & CRISIS lifeline, even if it's not an emergency. The call takers are able to point parents in the right direction in terms of resources.

"Sometimes you need professional help. Sometimes you need peer support. Sometimes you just need a breather to step back and look at the situation, but definitely get help. Don't just hold it in the household," she said.

NAMI Mississippi hopes for a disruption in schools when it comes to handling mental health, like getting nonprofits involved and teaching about it like gym or sex education.

Regardless of what happens in schools, both Sitaniel and Cloy say now is the time to have open conversations and ask questions, because it could save a young life.

"I'd say pay attention to the young adults. Listen to their voices and understand it's okay not to be okay and support them when they aren't," said Sitaniel.