Task force looks at student mental health

Mental health has been a hot topic the past few years especially when it comes to children and teenagers. In their third meeting, the state’s Chromic Absentee Task Force discussed how mental health is affecting students coming to school.

During the previous conversations regarding transportation and family engagement, members of the task force mentioned how they saw the mental health of the students play into these other aspects as well. The State of Mental Health in America 2023 report showed that nearly 20% of children in Virginia have had at least one depressive episode. A Virginia school survey showed that 40% of high school students felt sad or hopeless, 10% of middle and 13% of high school students seriously considered suicide over the past 12 months with 56% making a plan to do so. 

Part of that has to do with the pandemic, the data showed. Some students have been concerned with, and struggling to adapt to a return to normal. In some areas, a concern over potential gun violence has students on edge. And then, in places like here in Central Virginia, part of the problem is a family situation. Some families in Prince Edward, for example, either have just one car or no vehicle at all. That causes a problem when a student misses the bus or doesn’t live near a bus route. If their parents or guardians can’t take them before going to work, these students miss class, increasing their anxiety. 

“The kids have been telling us for a while that they are not ok,” said Janet Kelly, the special advisor for children and families to the governor. “If you view behavior as a need then they’ve been telling us for a while that they’re not ok.” 

According to Kelly, one out of five youth ages 13 to 17 experience serious mental health conditions and 17% of students grades third through eighth are chronically absent due to mental health. Even though the COVID-19 pandemic has caused mental health in students to decline, statistics show that there was a problem brewing before the pandemic but gas on the fire. 

Kelly focused on social media as the average child spends four and a half hours a day on it. While not wanting to send conflicting messages, State Superintendent Lisa Coons mentioned how teachers should try not to incorporate phones into the lesson to help students get a break and some separation from this forming addiction. 

OTHER WAYS TO DEAL WITH THE ISSUE

Touching on the previous meeting’s topic, Kelly discussed how important it is for students to have a caring adult, whether that is at home or school. Kids with one caring adult are 52% less likely to skip school, 46% less likely to use drugs and 33% less likely to hit someone. 

Dr. Chip Jones, superintendent in Cumberland, shared a new program the district is starting with One School, One Book. Across all the schools, families will read one book with their students to help build that relationship and spend time off social media. 

“It’s just to increase the love of literacy across families and get to where families are talking about a book instead of social media,” said Jones.

Dr. Alexis Aplasca, chief clinical officer for the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Development Services, showed a diagram of the cycle many students get into that causes chronic absenteeism. It starts with a negative feeling and then their thoughts take over creating a behavior of not going to school or trying to leave early. She encouraged screening tools to see if students are experiencing these mental health issues and monitor them. To help, schools can apply for a grant as Gov. Glenn Youngkin signed in his most recent budget an additional $7.5 million annually for schools for school-based mental health pilot programs.

“We heard earlier that it’s not always up to the school but when you’re in a rural area it almost is up to the school,” said Jones. “The accessibility to get to Richmond, to get to Charlottesville, to get to Farmville can be 45 minutes plus for some families that don’t have the resources to get there. So I think I agree that mental health and chronic absenteeism all go together and it really falls on the backs of the schools to make sure that the services are in place but yet there is not always funding to help us do that.” 

MORE MEETINGS

There’s at least one more meeting left for this group, which will take place later this month. The goal here is to develop a series of actionable items to present to both the governor and next year’s General Assembly.