As suicide rates rising at an alarming rate among teens, and an already-strained mental healthcare system races to catch up, Loudoun’s school district is looking to fill the gaps and meet student needs with its Mental Health Taskforce.
The COVID-19 pandemic forced the county’s approximately 84,000 students into remote learning in March 2020 and upended normalcy for all students. The isolation, parents and professionals agree, took a toll on children.
The taskforce, formed by Superintendent Scott Ziegler in May, taps student leaders to assess and share with the unified mental health team where resources fall short. Ziegler said that the main charge of the group is to figure out how to best transition students back to in-person learning. The task force got to work this month, coinciding with Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. According to Chief of Staff Mark Smith, the task force will aim to present to the School Board an analysis of mental health services for students as well as recommendations on changes in January.
A Youth Epidemic
When School Board member Beth Barts (Leesburg) decided to run for office, mental health among youth had shaken her community and resonated with her. She made it one of her goals to fight for more resources for students. She recalled the loss of Jay Gallagher, a Potomac Falls student, to suicide in 2016. She said that the loss rallied the community and forced the school district to acknowledge issues. The pandemic, she said, took a complex and pervasive issue and made it worse.
“We have come a long way since 2016 and the community rallying for additional mental health services, but we still have work to do,” Barts said.
According to the Virginia Department of Health, the number of deaths by suicide among people across the state ages 10-19 increased form five in the first quarter of 2020 to at least 32 deaths in the first quarter of 2021. Additionally, the Centers for Disease control reported that among teens, mental health-related visits to emergency rooms increased by 31% in 2020.
The Loudoun-based Ryan Bartel Foundation, named for a student lost to suicide and whose mission is to prevent youth suicide, surveyed local teens and found that most who are suffering from mental health issues have angst attributable to the pandemic, ranging from worries about transmitting COVID to younger siblings, to re-engaging with peers after nearly two years of distance or hybrid learning.
A multi-tiered approach
The task force is just one element of the district’s strategy to ensure resources are thoroughly deployed throughout the county.
In recent years, the district administration cultivated unified mental health teams for each school, which include school psychologists, school social workers, student assistance specialists, school counselors, school nurses, and administrators.
Supports for students are broken up into tiers. Tier one supports are resources that are offered to all students, such as individual meetings with school counselors. Tier two supports provide students with more targeted assistance. That includes small group meeting to discuss dealing with grief and mental illness. Tier two support also includes programming created by the Ryan Bartel Foundation such as the Sources of Strength program, which connects teens on social networks to create emotional supports and open dialogues.
Tier three interventions are used when students may need medical intervention or referrals to a psychiatric professional. There, Barts said, is where the community has the largest need.
“School counselors don’t treat, so we need to look at it as a community concern. We need to make sure there are enough therapists to take on the need. … It’s difficult to get services, to get placements,” Barts said.
But, Ziegler said one of the long-term goals of the task force is to find a way to provide therapeutic treatment to students at no cost, which would eliminate the daunting task for parents of finding a provider that takes their particular insurance. While the exploration of such a program is in the early stages, Ziegler said it would look similar to the therapeutic services offered to employees.
“It’s a charge, it’s an aspirational goal. I don’t know if it’s going to come to fruition, I think it’s going to cost a lot of money,” Ziegler said.
To meet the need for mental health services, the School Board added 10 new school counselors this year. There are now 84 full time employees such as school counselors, social workers, and psychologists. Every high school has a psychologist, social worker, and several school counselors. At the elementary school level though, some schools go without even a school counselor. Jones said the district is working to change the ratios so that every elementary school has a counselor.
Organizations like the Ryan Bartel Foundation are bolstering school and community resources. Over the summer, the organization trained school resource officers to deal with mental health emergencies through the program “Sources of Strength.” The SROs are assigned to every school from the Sheriff’s Office and the Leesburg Police Department to secure campuses and aid in student emergencies when necessary.
“I think with all the violence that we’ve had in schools, people are really scared to approach someone in a uniform. The goal was to train them in the same language as sources of strength. That way they can become more of a mentor to students,” Suzie Bartel, Ryan’s mother and the foundation’s chair, said.
Bartel said that the warning signs for deteriorating mental health among youth are first seen at home. It’s crucial, she said, for parents to ask their children how they’re feeling.
“You don’t think it’s ever going to hit your family. Even if your child is struggling and you decided to get some professional help by consulting a therapist, even then you’ll be in denial that something like this will happen,” she said.
Bartel said that if parents are facing a mental health crisis with their child, to go to the nearest emergency room, as all ER’s are equipped to handle mental health emergencies. For less urgent situations, parents should contact their child’s school counselor for guidance from the unified mental health team.