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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

After a stressful few years, school districts prepare to support students with fragile mental health

Wilbur Creston High School students checked out empowerment stickers at the Rural Resources Victim Services booth hosted by Community Engagement Facilitator Megan Wyborney. Wilbur Creston High School held it first annual Wellness Day for students earlier this year. Other area school districts are creating programs to help students who are struggling with mental health challenges.  (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
By Jim Allen For The Spokesman-Review

Buffeted by the pandemic and social media, the mental health of children and teens appears increasingly fragile, according to one national survey.

However, local school districts are attempting to meet the challenge.

Spokane Public Schools and other districts have prioritized funding for counselors and other staff, while the Mead School District has launched a series of community events to address student wellness.

Last week, Mead High School hosted the district’s first event of a series called “Future Ready.” The emphasis was on student well-being – physical, mental and emotional – and included a guest speaker and representatives from several community agencies.

Families responded: The Tuesday night event drew more than 250 people.

“It was a great event,” said Josh Westermann, who is in his third year as director of Student and Family Services for the district. “It was the kickoff event we’d hoped for.”

Meanwhile, Spokane Public Schools began engaging with students and families before the school year began, with launch conferences.

“Students got to know their teachers and teachers got to know students and guardians in a face-to-face before school even began,” said David Crump, director of mental health services for a district that serves about 30,000 students.

Based on national numbers, many of those students are probably dealing with mental health issues.

A new report by Clarify Health Institute shines a light on the toll the pandemic and other stressors have taken on the mental health of children and adolescents over the last six years.

It reveals a dramatic increase in use of acute care services for depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions, especially among teens and preteens.

Based on a survey of insurance claims from more than 20 million children aged 1 to 19, the survey showed several troubling trends.

From 2016 to 2021, inpatient admissions rose 61% and emergency department visits increased 20%.

The rise was particularly acute among adolescents 12 to 15 years old, increasing 84% among girls and 83% among boys.

“With a growing consensus that mental, behavioral and physical health intersect, this research report aims to spark a conversation about the overall well being of America’s next generation,” said Dr. Jean Drouin, Clarify Health’s chief executive office and co-founder, said in a news release.

Mental health inpatient use grew faster from 2016 to 2021 among children with commercial insurance than those without, which begs the question: How many poorer children are going without those services?

Schools have been forced to respond with more urgency.

On Friday, Spokane superintendent Adam Swinyard will join colleagues from around the state as they discuss how this year will be different from last, and how they plan to support the mental health of students.

“One positive this year is that the kids, families and staff had a fairly normal summer, meaning they could go to pools, movies, parks, friends’ houses – they could do normal things,” Crump said. “So what we’ve been seeing is that students are excited and interested in coming back.”

The challenge is that kids have been in and out of the routines of school since the spring of 2020.

“We have seen students with high anxiety for a lot of reasons – getting back into the routine, dealing with the expectations, not having the freedom that they have at home,” Crump said.

Even normally joyous events – sports, band, choir, drama, family nights – can be stressful, Crump says, “because they haven’t seen it for a couple of years.”

“The newness can be stressful. But it’s also a huge outlet at the same time,” Crump said.

At the same time, students are trying to fit with their peers following a time during which social media supplanted much of their face-to-face time.

During that time, relationships were lost as the sixth -graders of spring 2020 are now in ninth grade and missed middle school, while kindergartners missed first and second grade.

For that and other reasons, the event at Mead focused on the influence of social media “and how hard it can be on kids,” Westermann said.

“We’ve really started to focus on protective factors, so when negative things happen, there’s a lot of positive support networks,” Westermann said.

In Spokane, Crump said he hopes that students can go to school knowing that they will be protected, fed and cared for.

“And our staff does a really good job of trying to provide all of that,” Crump said. “Right now, we have more support staff in the district than we ever have.”