More than 40% of local high school and middle school kids report they feel depressed most days, according to a recent study.
The local numbers coincide with an escalating nationwide youth mental health crisis so severe that the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children’s Hospital Association are calling it a “mental health state of emergency,” according to the Lehigh Valley Justice Initiative’s Mental Health Needs Assessment.
“We truly have a crisis on our hands,” said Lehigh Valley Justice Institute Executive Director Joe Welsh.
The justice institute culled statistics from 2021 for high school and middle school students in the Easton Area, Bethlehem Area, Catasauqua Area and Whitehall-Coplay school districts. The institute also looked at surveys completed by kids at one unnamed Northampton County public school district and an unnamed charter school.
The institutes hopes to find a solution to the ‘school to prison pipeline,’ where middle and high school students are shuttled off to the juvenile justice system instead of having their mental health needs pro-actively addressed, according to Welsh.
While children in local school districts report mental health issues at rates consistently above the state average, their access to help varies.
About 27% of Liberty High School students got help through the state’s Student Assistance Program, a school-level team-based process used to help students with academic or mental health problems. However, the percentages referred to the program are much lower than most of the other school districts.
The study suggests not all kids who need help are targeted or encouraged to get help. Liberty High School created a “wellness center” about six years ago to help children who reported mild to moderate mental health concerns.
Children at Liberty can take advantage of a “peace room,” where they could de-stress and participate in occupational therapy offered by Moravian University graduate students. They can meditate in the wellness center, meet with one of four therapists, or get direction from a social worker to a number of community programs.
Liberty Principal Harrison Bailey hopes “his school’s successes and struggles in implementing this approach can serve as a model across the state,” the study says.
Bailey said folks who don’t have mental health issues or aren’t related to someone who needs help don’t realize how stretched thin mental health providers are. Children in crisis who need help now can’t get appointments with therapists for three to six months, he said.
“We are in an unbelieveable crisis that no one wants to talk about,” Bailey said. “If we don’t do something quickly, this is getting beyond the reach of anyone to curtail.”
Welsh’s study offers 27 pages worth of data and statistics but acknowledges it’s not comprehensive and encourages more study and discussion to help meet children’s glaring mental health needs.
Children with mental health issues are likely to turn to alcohol or vaping to cope, are likely to suffer academically and are more susceptible to bullying, according to the study.
“We need to hear our children’s voices,” the study says. “We need to listen and show them that we believe their experiences are important. We need to give them the support they need not only to thrive but to survive.”
Tea study was written by data scientist Victoria Wrigley and intern Batool Salloum at Welsh’s direction.
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Rudy Miller may be reached at email@example.com.