After a year and a half of remote learning, students across Lane County are back in school full time, masked up and socially distanced.
But while trying to mitigate COVID-19 cases, school districts are also working to address a serious issue facing schools across the country: student mental health. In Eugene School District 4J, they expect many students to be anxious about the transition, and many students come from stressful situations at home. Facing a lack of available therapists, the district is working to try and bridge the gaps in care.
Last month, Sen. Ron Wyden hosted a roundtable at Churchill High School to discuss the needs and struggles of addressing student mental health. He also promoted a future bipartisan bill that will address mental health in kids with funding that may also provide support for schools addressing mental health.
“Being a tweener or teenager was hard before there was a pandemic. But it is clear going into the 2021-2022 school year, too many Oregon kids are near a crisis point,” Wyden said at the meeting. The bill has not yet been written.
The bottom line is that there aren’t enough therapists or options for acute care for the number of kids who need it, says interim 4J Superintendent Cydney Vandercar.
“We keep putting resources into mental health and it’s never enough. So we put counselors into each school, right? And we need more because the need is growing,” Vandercar says.
Although the district says it is working hard to find ways to bridge the gap between when students are in crisis and when they can receive help, Student Services Director Kat Lange says they still need more therapists.
Lange explains that it would be ideal to have a bed available for acute care, or long-term counseling, but that those resources aren’t available.
“We haven’t been able to hire our mental health therapists,” Lange says. “The amount of therapists out there is few and far between, and they are all super busy.” The turnover is also super high, she says, most likely due to burnout.
Lange says 4J would like to bring in somebody to help between the time when someone is referred to therapy and then receives therapy. Appointments with counselors are often booked six months out — and that is just for a first appointment.
“Crisis doesn’t wait for six months. Crisis needs to be handled right away,” Lange says.
Vandercar says there is emergency care available for those in immediate need but, “there is nowhere to go after that.”
She explains that 4J is trying to put some pieces in place that will work for kids until there are more resources in the larger community mental health system. One of these goals is to provide preemptive care.
That’s why 4J hired a suicide prevention and risk assessment specialist, Angi Meyer, in January. Meyer says she was primarily charged with writing the suicide prevention plan for the school district — required by Oregon Senate Bill 52 — in collaboration with a mental health workgroup and other community partners health partners. The plan is posted on the 4J website.
“It’s my job to set up systems and structures to support the counselors, school psychologists, administrators and nurses who tend to be our primary screeners if there is a student in crisis,” Meyer says, adding she is also in charge of intervention by making sure the mental health processes and procedures are going smoothly.
Meyer says she is continually collaborating with Springfield and Bethel School Districts in talking about mental health and figuring out how to best support students and advocate for mental health resources in the community.
Mental health issues are also on the rise, Lange says, because of COVID, which means even more care is needed. People tend to look to the district to help, she says, but while the district is doing what it can, the district is not a mental health expert.
“We need bodies,” Lange says. “We need people who are majoring in this field.” Lange clarifies that in many ways, finding long-term therapy is not a new problem.
“It’s become more of a crisis, but it’s always been an issue.”
The district is also working on trying to ease students back into in-person learning. Every student comes from different backgrounds, Lange explains. Some had anxiety being home and others had anxiety coming back. There are students who, before the pandemic, were in the middle of seventh grade and now are entering high school. 4J added an extra transition day for this and says it is working on meeting students where they are at, but acknowledges that each student is facing unique challenges.
“We are really trying to help students build those relationships in the building, and that is really our focus right now,” Lange says. They do this by encouraging teachers to hold “get to know you” activities and educating students on how they can access school counselors and community mental health resources.
Vandercar says it was good for students to come back to school. She says there are kids who are in need of support, adding that although some parents wanted to wait, it was important to get kids back into school to help prevent further mental health issues.
“I respect the virus, and I know that some people are really worried about what it can do. But sometimes you have to weigh what kids need. And kids need to be together and to learn social skills and learn how to play on the playground,” Vandercar says.
September is National Suicide Prevention Month. If you or someone you know is considering suicide, contact the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline for free at 800-273-8255. To read 4J’s suicide prevention plan visit 4J.Lane.edu/Safety. It is available in English and Spanish.