Every day is different in Jill Whitright’s counseling office.
Whitright has spent about 20 years as a Mount Solo Middle School counselor, responding to an array of student needs. Sometimes she coordinates parent-teacher conferences. Sometimes she lends an ear to a student struggling emotionally or academically, or both.
Often, her job revolves around connecting students to mental and behavioral health services.
After two years of remote and hybrid learning, students are feeling stressed and depressed. Destigmatizing therapy, recruiting mental health specialists and state legislation is helping local schools reconsider how they can approach rising mental health concerns.
“This is an age where they’re all kind of trying to figure out where they fit in and how they self-identify, how to handle peer-conflict, how to deal with making friends, keeping friends,” Whitright said. “Those are things that counselors — for elementary, middle and high school — we’re all trying to support kids in.”
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Mental health by the numbers
Reports of depression, isolation and anxiety in students is not a new phenomenon, Whitright said.
However, more students tell Whitright they feel anxious, sad or isolated since before the pandemic.
County and state data reflect this.
Cowlitz County results from the 2021 Washington Health Care Authority’s youth health survey reported 40% of eighth- and 10th-graders felt so consistently sad or hopeless in the last two weeks that they quit hobbies, and 20% of 10th-graders considered suicide.
The Longview School District also reported more students are seeing third-party health providers as compared to last year, according to Karen Joy, the district’s special education director.
Joy presented a mental health report to the Longview School Board Monday night showing 395 students were receiving mental health services in the 2021-22 school year, up from 243 during 2020-21.
A number of factors likely contributed to this uptick, Joy said.
In 2020, students were at home and probably less likely to see their school guidance counselors, who are most often the ones to refer them to outside providers.
The district contracts with agencies to help meet the need, as clinics and schools have struggled with staffing shortages and a high turnover rate, Joy said.
Until January, CORE Health, the largest outside provider for Longview students, had no one on board to see students, Joy said.
“We have grown this year, but we’re not quite there yet,” Joy said.
Longview Schools Superintendent Dan Zorn said prior to the pandemic, the district started hiring more nurses and counselors, and he said he considers the district’s mental health team well-staffed. Every school has at least one counselor, and they are looking to hire more.
During this past legislative session, state lawmakers signed a law encouraging schools to hire more psychologists, nurses and counselors, said Rep. Monica Stonier, D-Vancouver. The bill earmarks money for districts to either hire more specialists in schools or contract with more local providers.
However, recruitment is tough for small rural school districts who are seeing fewer applicants for these positions.
“The pool is even more shallow than it was before,” Zorn said.
Connecting students to services
Mental health treatment also can be expensive. According to SimplePractice, a management site for mental health professionals, a typical psychotherapy session can cost $100 to $200 before insurance.
Most of the providers for Longview students accept Medicaid, but Whitright said it can be tough navigating private insurance policies that may not cover a student’s treatment.
Whitright said students also face stigmas about therapy.
“I think at this age they’re nervous about, ‘Who will I meet with? What are they like?’ “ Whitright said. “I’m trying to work with them on understanding there are times where we all need support and it’s not anything to feel bad or embarrassed about.”
Transportation options also can prevent them from getting treatment even after they are referred, Joy said.
“Some aren’t always showing up,” Joy said. “Unfortunately, the students that require the most therapy are the ones more likely to miss school, so we’re doing everything we can to try to see them.”
Students before the pandemic regularly dealt with grief and unstable home lives that counselors could first address at school, Whitright said.
COVID-19 seemed to amplify those feelings, Whitright said. Some children lost their parents or other family members. Some parents lost their jobs.
“At the elementary level we are seeing more fears about death and dying,” Wallace Elementary School counselor Lavern Dollarhyde wrote in an email to The Daily News. “When a family member is sick, the fears are exponential.”
Sue Tinney, Kelso School District’s youth and family support coordinator, wrote in an email to The Daily News that students experienced changes at home because of COVID-19, negative influences of social media and the general uncertainty of being a teenager.
“Some students did not learn well in the online environment, which has caused additional anxiety for some when they returned to in-person learning,” Tinney wrote via email.
Stonier said remote learning also challenged usual safeguards schools have to identify students who are at-risk or face abuse at home.
“Much of the time, people who first hear and see these behaviors in kids are the ones who are there with them every day,” Stonier said. “A lot of our mandatory reporters were not having contact with the kids we normally would have.”
Children who were fourth-graders when the pandemic hit are now entering middle school in a setting they were largely kept from for two years, Zorn said. When they came back, they had to relearn how to interact with their peers in a classroom.
“As a system what we’re trying to do is help our kids regain those skills,” Zorn said. “In a lot of respects, discipline is easy. What’s hard is changing behaviors.”