This story is the fifth installment of the KUNR series Mental Health in the Silver State.
At McQueen High School in Northwest Reno on a mid-September afternoon, the girls’ tennis team warmed up before practice started. They hit balls back and forth and chatted as they did so.
Junior Arabelle Deason sat on a bench alongside one of the courts and watched her teammates rally.
“I know that this is a space where I can talk about my life and I can practice the sport that I love,” she said. “And it can be hard at times because I don’t feel like, you know, running up and down a court a bunch, but it’s also overall just really good for my mental health.”
Deason said she feels comfortable and safe with this team. It is a place where she can talk through the stressful aspects of being a student.
But since the pandemic hit and students were forced to take classes from home, many have struggled to find comfort and safety at home and school. And it can be hard to get the help they need when they need it.
About 31 percent of district students are chronically absent. That may indicate that they are struggling with mental health, said Paul LaMarca, WCSD’s chief student and family supports officer.
Statewide data corroborates the perception of poor mental health. Nevada’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey tracks the habits of the state’s children. Its data showed big changes in youth mental health after the onset of the pandemic, said Kristen Clements-Nolle, University of Nevada, Reno (UNR) epidemiology professor and co-principal investigator.
“Post-stay-at-home orders, we saw a significant decline in most mental health indicators in our high school youth,” she said. “Depressive symptoms in the past 12 months worsened, suicidal behaviors, their ability to feel like they’re getting the kind of help they needed, most indicators significantly decreased.”
Depression and anxiety come up as two of the most prevalent mental illnesses among adolescents. Katherine Loudon, the district’s counseling coordinator, said that could be due to any number of stressors present in students’ lives.
“We know anxiety and depression and some of those activities like lack of attendance and things like that are evidence of stressors overall with our students,” she said. “And that can be related to the lack of basic needs, it could be related to academic pressures, it could be a variety of different risk factors.”
Overwhelming academic pressure coupled with lacking knowledge about how to handle it represents one of the biggest stressors contributing to mental illness.
Reno High School senior Sydney Menante said she sees her classmates attempting to juggle so much.
“Anxiety is probably the biggest one because school gives you a lot of anxiety and stress. A lot of my friends will just have panic attacks or anxiety attacks in the middle of the night, because they’re so stressed out over school and work and sports all piled up on top of each other,” she said. “And a lot of us just don’t know how to handle it.”
Galena High School junior Anthony Barraza feels that academic pressure, too. Heavy school work plus his perfectionist tendencies can leave him feeling down and out.
“I feel like school is more of trial and failure in that sort of sense, because academics is more of you try and then you fail and then you don’t want to try again,” he said.
Barraza’s frustration with school is not unique. Deason said that students are still recovering from the learning loss that built up when they could not go to school.
“Education still feels like, ‘Wait, when were we supposed to learn this? I don’t know this.’ And then they just don’t have a lot of motivation,” she said. “They feel very discouraged.”
Poor mental health threatens to complicate that knowledge recovery even more. Students preoccupied with mental illness and stress might not be able to learn effectively, LaMarca said.
“If a child is suffering from a toothache, they are not going to be able to focus on what’s happening in the class,” he said. “Same is true with mental health issues. So, if they are anxious, they aren’t going to be able to focus on academics.”
LaMarca and other district officials, nonprofits, and private mental health professionals are collaborating and sharing information about youth wellbeing in hopes of keeping youth on track. The second annual Youth Mental Health Summit hosted by the Children’s Cabinet and a UNR College of Education conference on supportive interventions for kids in public schools both occurred in September. District officials spoke at both conferences.
WCSD has been increasing access to mental health services in schools since about 2015 after the Nevada State Legislature started to take an interest in bullying and suicide prevention.
“What I’m most proud of is the expansion we’ve seen in getting dedicated mental health resources into school through the expansion of mental health professionals, the expansion of school social workers, as well as the expansion of what we call colocated mental health services,” LaMarca said.
Just last school year, the district started offering access to Care Solace, a service that helps find outside treatment options quickly. The district is also trying to improve school climates through the addition of safe school professionals and by creating trauma-sensitive environments. Lastly, students and administrators alike point out a renewed focus on including the voices of students in decision making. The Youth Mental Health Summit hosted a panel of students, including Barraza and Menante, sharing how they want schools to support their wellbeing.
But not every school has the same support services available, partially because there is not a formula for adding mental health professionals and social workers to school sites. High student-to-counselor ratios and bursting schedules further hinder access for students, Deason said.
“They are very much like, ‘You cannot come unless you have an appointment,’ ” she said. “And a lot of times, if a student is in a moment of distress and they need someone, then they’re not going to be knowing that that’s happening like a week in advance, and like, ‘Oh, I better make an appointment to see the counselor for my panic attack next week.’ ”
District leaders want to improve student access to the school professionals and better evaluate existing programs.
Students also call for reduced or more flexible academic workloads to cut down on stress. Many advocate for more robust mental health education in schools, too. At Galena, for example, social-emotional learning is taught during the seventh period when many students have already left for the day and no matter the expertise of the teacher. For example, Barraza’s yearbook teacher instructs his class.
Many students still identify a disconnect between school staff and youth. Menante credited finding a trusted adult in a family friend with saving her life after she attempted suicide a couple of years ago.
“We’d just talk about whatever was going on inside my head. No judgments were made. No psychiatrist was called. My parents weren’t frightened,” she said. “I just found my safe space. And for a lot of people finding the safe space isn’t necessarily the answer, but it is a good outlet to find. And it’s really hard to find.”
If you or someone you know is in crisis, call or text the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline. Go to NAMINevada.org for a list of resources and other information.
Jose Davila IV is a corps member for Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project.
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