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Utah schools are in ‘triage’ mode when it comes to mental health support for students

A graphic concept of a stressed out student.
Aleksei Morozov
Southern Utah University saw a 400% increase in the number of students seeking help during the pandemic.

Student mental health needs have been growing for years.

Jayci Hacker, director of student care and advocacy at Southern Utah University, said there are a combination of factors at play. The pandemic clearly exacerbated mental health challenges, with more students physically isolated, less ability for faculty and staff to identify warning signs and an overall increase in anxiety levels.

But Hacker said people have also become more accepting of seeking help, even in a more rural area like Cedar City. She said younger people in particular are more willing to talk about what they are feeling and try to find help.

It’s all translated into an exponential increase in health care needs that Hacker said is reaching a tipping point.

Last year, SUU saw a 400% increase in the number of students seeking help. About a third of them required treatment for serious challenges like eating disorders, suicidal ideation and psychosis.

If those cases aren’t caught early, Hacker said, students will often have to leave school to seek help elsewhere.

“What we do here is kind of a triage,” she said. “We do our best to bring the crisis down to a level that is not dangerous and then work to get them connected to more ongoing long-term care.”

The mental health needs of students have been a growing concern of state leaders, who in recent years have expanded awareness and funding for mental health support through a number of bills.

The newly-created Education and Mental Health Coordinating Council met for the first time Wednesday — a group of lawmakers, behavioral health experts and education leaders tasked with planning and monitoring the state’s efforts around youth mental health.

Schools on the frontlines

In the meantime, schools have become the frontlines for student mental health support, where a limited number of counselors are often working overtime and traveling between schools to reach all of the students seeking help.

“I don't know how sustainable that is to continue with that process,” said Curt Jenkins, director of student services for the Cache County School District.

Only one counselor there speaks Spanish, he added, which has meant the growing Hispanic population there has even fewer resources.

One bright spot in the battle against mental health needs has been the influx of federal COVID relief, which many K-12 schools are using to hire more providers.

The Ogden School District brought in a social worker in six high-need schools, said student advocacy services director Sonja Davidson.

Mental health has been a focus for the district for several years, Davidson said, so it already had data and a plan of action in place when the pandemic arrived. But the challenge with using the funding for hiring is that it must be spent by 2024. Because of that, she said the district will be closely tracking how the new staff impact students.

“If we can say, ‘Look what we're able to do, look at the impact that it has on our students,’ whether it's to the state Legislature or whatever funding source we have, we can then use it to advocate for more funding in the future,” she said.

Jenkins said schools have been asked to do more over the years, as student needs have grown and parents are increasingly working more and longer hours. But given the time students spend there, schools are also well-positioned to help.

“If not us, then who?” he said. “In a perfect world, we could just get back to teaching. But I think this is just kind of what we do now is helping kids all the way around.”

Corrected: November 18, 2021 at 12:40 PM MST
An earlier version of this story misspelled Sonja Davidson's name.
Corrected: October 8, 2021 at 11:59 AM MDT
This story has been corrected to show the 400% increase of students seeking help is for the entire SUU campus.

Jon reports on quality of life issues, education and the economy
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