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With Utah youth showing more mental health concerns, schools are seeking answers

Young student crouched on a staircase.
Getty Images/iStockphoto
Behavioral health-related emergency visits for children have tripled over the last five years at Intermountain Healthcare, according to its data.

There’s a lot of speculation about what’s driving the youth mental health crisis. The pandemic certainly played a role, but long-standing issues like social media use and concerns over housing and food security also contribute.

“There are so many theories out there and it's really hard to wrap our heads around it,” Dr. Neil Davis, a pediatrician with Intermountain Healthcare, told the Education and Mental Health Coordinating Council recently.

Whatever the cause, he noted data from the hospital system shows the number of behavioral health-related emergency department visits for children has tripled over the last five years. School districts are also seeing more instances of younger students — as early as kindergarten — dealing with severe mental health issues.

Peter Ingle, a specialist in the Murray School District, said his team has been brainstorming the best steps to address the challenges.

While there is a social worker in each school, as well as behavior support technicians who work with students with the most challenging issues, school staff still face resistance from parents and difficulties getting kids into dedicated treatment centers.

“I think that's one of our major concerns … what's our role?” he said. “It's not clearly defined and there's no set mechanism to support that kind of collaboration [with other organizations].”

The council has discussed various solutions to the wide-ranging challenges that include screening students before they enter kindergarten and tapping into an underused component of Medicaid to help better coordinate physical health services with mental health.

“Medicaid holds tremendous potential for how we can help kids, especially young kids, especially kids most in need,” said Jessie Mandel, a health policy analyst for Voices for Utah Children. “This is an area where we are already making deep investments as a state. But I'm very excited for the work of this group to think about how we can maximize and innovate across the Medicaid program.”

Ingle said the use of Medicaid funds and regular screenings of kids would help families tap into additional resources and identify issues before they become problems. It’s also important, he said, to continue to address the stigma around mental health, particularly with parents, so that people are more willing to seek the help that’s available.

“I think we are already past the ‘is this a problem?’” he said. “There doesn't seem to be a lot of hesitancy about that. And that gets you over the first hurdle. Now we're at that [phase of] ‘OK, so what do we want to do and where do we best put our efforts?”

The council voted to prioritize working toward an awareness campaign around early childhood mental health and exploring ways to better integrate mental health treatment with physical health care. It will make specific requests for funding or policy recommendations to the state legislature in the coming year.

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