Youth and Mental Health
Helping students reconnect to school is vital, especially in vulnerable communities
Tatiyona Harris is sitting near the dugout in her softball uniform, talking in a matter-of-fact manner about the pandemic and her plans after high school.
“I want to be a psychiatric nurse when I graduate as salutatorian,” the self-described “social butterfly” says as her teammates warm up for a tournament in Okmulgee, Okla. “I like the idea of studying people who are basically like me, and helping other people get through what I’ve gone through.”
Tatiyona knows she’s lucky she is not a statistic. In the fall of 2020, the then-freshman at Okmulgee High School tried to take her life and had to be hospitalized in a Tulsa psychiatric clinic 40 miles away.
I wrote those three paragraphs in early April, having returned from Oklahoma from reporting two freelance magazine stories about pandemic-related challenges facing rural schools and communities. The stories, which are accompanied by my photos, appear in the current issue of American School Board Journal, where I’m a contributing editor.
The first story, “Vital Connections,” focuses on the lack of Internet access and the scramble school districts faced as they worked to institute virtual learning at the start of the pandemic. The problems have been particularly acute in low-income and rural communities and especially for Native American students.
The second story, which features the interview with Tatiyona, her mother, and another family, looks at student mental health — a growing concern for schools, parents, caregivers, and society at large.
The Facts Behind the Crisis
High profile incidents such as the recent suicide of Naomi Judd call attention to the mental health issues so many people face. But there has always been a stigma of shame, along with a stinging level of insensitivity, around young people with mental health diagnoses.
As the parents of a child diagnosed with ADHD/bipolar, my wife Jill and I dealt with those stigmas on a personal level. Our response was to be open and honest about mental health and its effect on families. Professionally, Jill has carried this through in her work with the American School Counselor Association. I’ve written about our daughter, Kate, as well as school districts that deal with mental health issues related to trauma.
Earlier this week, the New York Times published an excellent series on the mental health crisis and teens. As a journalist, I know it’s easy to fall back on labels such as “crisis” on series like this, but the word could not be more accurate.
All you have to do is look at these facts:
The American Academy of Pediatrics says teens are struggling with “soaring rates of depression, anxiety, trauma, loneliness, and suicidality.”
Pre-pandemic, concerns about teen mental health nationwide were on the rise. From 2009 to 2019, the percentage of adolescents who reported having “persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness” jumped from 26 percent to 37 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That number rose to 44 percent in 2021.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, two-thirds of the 3 million adolescents who experienced major depression in 2020 did not receive any treatment. A possible reason: 70 percent of counties in the U.S. do not have a psychiatrist who specializes in working with children or adolescents. Of those that do, the psychiatrists are typically in wealthier areas and many do not accept insurance.
Emergency department visits for suspected suicide attempts among youth, especially girls, ages 12 to 17 started increasing in May 2020, according to another CDC study. From February 21 to March 20, 2021, the visits increased by 50.6 percent among girls and 3.7 percent among boys ages 12 to 17 when compared with the same period in 2019.
In research published in late April in the journal JAMA Pediatrics, the number of suicides among adolescents between the ages of 10 and 19 increased in five states during the pandemic. Six states — Georgia, Indiana, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Virginia, and California — showed an increase in the proportion of adolescent deaths by suicide compared to suicides by people of all ages.
Telling Their Story
I thought again of the conversation with Tatiyona following the suicide of Lauren Bernett, the softball player who helped lead James Madison University to the Women’s College World Series. Bernett is one of at least five high-profile college student athletes who have died by suicide since March.
“The pandemic was really hard on my mental health,” Tatiyona said. “You couldn’t leave your house. You couldn’t see anybody. Not being able to socialize, I had more time to get into my head and I spiraled. My thoughts just got really bad.”
Now Tatiyona and her mother, Terra Beaver, want their experience to help illustrate the mental health crisis affecting so many youth, especially American Indian and Alaska Native (AIAN) students.
As my stories note, before the pandemic, AIAN youth already were disproportionately affected by poverty, food insecurity, and ongoing trauma due to a lack of family stability, substance abuse, and domestic violence. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for Native youth ages 10-24 and is almost three times higher than the national average, according to the Suicide Prevention Resource Center.
At the start of the pandemic, Beaver says her middle child was showing “different characteristics of anxiety and anger and stuff like that,” but she didn’t realize how serious Tatiyana’s depression was.
“She is so outgoing and likes to be around her friends. They hang out all the time,” says Beaver, who works for the Department of Indian Affairs and has four additional children. “She’s hardly ever home because she has so many things she likes to do, between her studies and her extracurricular activities. She would live at school if she could. I think the pandemic did impact her and other kids in more ways than we could have imagined or expected or been ready for. I just feel lucky.”
Tatiyana is seeing a therapist. She talks to her classmates about mental health. Concurrently enrolled at the Oklahoma State University Institute of Technology campus, she recently wrote and presented a paper to her classmates on student mental health and the pandemic.
“When it happened, nobody really talked about mental health around me,” she says. “Now, my friends know if they are really going through it, they can come to me and ask me for advice. Our school counselor makes it a very comfortable setting to talk about mental health, so that makes it easier too. It’s not such a weird thing to talk about anymore.”
If you or someone you know may be struggling with suicidal thoughts, you can call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) any time day or night. Crisis Text Line also provides free, 24/7, confidential support via text message to people in crisis when they dial 741741.