Child mental health declining, educators say

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Capital News Service 

LANSING — Student mental health has become a top worry for Michigan educators, according to a new statewide survey of 2,600 educators.

The Michigan Education Association survey found that 88% said they were very concerned about student behavioral problems and mental health. 

That was the second-ranked concern among educators, with staffing shortages taking the top spot. Pay and benefits came in third.

The MEA is the state’s largest union of teachers and other school staff. 

“This is the first time I haven’t seen educator pay and benefits as top-ranking,” said Doug Pratt, MEA’s director of public affairs. 

As the concern over student mental health grows, districts and the state are looking for programs to help them. 

Kristina Hansen, the student success coordinator for Bark River-Harris Schools in the southwestern Upper Peninsula, said the lack of social and face-to-face interactions during the COVID-19 pandemic hurt students’ mental well-being. 

Hansen creates systems for academic, behavioral and social-emotional support for Bark River- Harris’ 740 students. 

“Those students that already struggled seem to struggle more, and then some students who maybe were fine prior to the pandemic, or appeared to be okay, also had some struggles,” she said. “So, it kind of became this universal thing that everyone needed some additional support.”

According to the Children’s Hospital Association, which represents 220 children’s hospitals across the country, over 25% of parents have sought professional help for their child because of the pandemic.

In the first half of 2021, cases of self-injury and suicide in children ages 5-17 were up 45% nationally compared to the same timeframe in 2019, according to children’s hospitals that self-reported.

In response to the situation, Bark River-Harris Schools started using the University of Michigan’s TRAILS (Transforming Research into Action to Improve the Lives of Students) program rooted in cognitive behavioral therapy, a psychological treatment based on the concept that symptoms can be improved through learning coping skills.

Ann Arbor Public Schools and Detroit Public Schools are among other districts that also use the TRAILS program. 

Hansen said all Bark River-Harris teachers were trained at the beginning of the school year in lessons ranging from empathy to cognitive coping. They then pass those lessons on to their students. 

Each week, Hansen said, teachers of every grade teach a lesson based around the same topic. Hansen gave the example of empathy, where every lesson taught is about empathy in a way that is age-appropriate “so that the conversations that adults were having around the building with students could go back to that core idea of that week.”

For students struggling with intense mental health problems like suicidal thoughts, Hansen said the lessons give adults the language and skills to help them as well. 

For students who are really struggling, Hansen said the district has also used a small group TRAILS program. 

Hansen said she’s noticed an improvement in students’ ability to identify their thoughts and emotions, and change their behavior due to TRAILS. 

“It’s not perfect,” she said. “This is not some utopian society that we’ve created. But the kids really have some skills now that they didn’t have before.”

According to the National Association of School Psychologists, students who receive mental health support do better in school than those without such support. 

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s new budget proposal calls for an expansion of TRAILS and investing $361 million in student mental health. That includes hiring more mental health professionals. 

Hansen said she would love to have more mental health professionals available for her students.

“Part of the problem that we’re running into is that just because we would like to hire more, and if we had the money to hire more, they’re not necessarily out there to hire,” she said. 

According to the Michigan State University Institute for Public Policy and Social Research, there should be one counselor for every 250 students, but there’s only one for every 693 students in the state. 

There’s one school social worker for every 1,051 students and two school psychologists for every 2,184 students, the institute said.

Michigan Education Association President Paula Herbart said mental health professionals are part of the larger educator shortage the state faces.

“This is adding to the already overwhelming pressure caused by meeting students’ academic, social and emotional needs while also dealing with COVID-19, unfair evaluations, standardized testing, the threat of school violence and so much more,” Herbart said.

Part of filling that shortage is providing education funding for those who want to go back to college to prepare to become mental health professionals in schools, which is included in Whitmer’s budget proposal, she said. 

If higher salaries and better benefits become the norm for educators, including mental health professionals, more people will want to go into education for a career, Herbart said.

“If you build it, they will come,” she said.

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