Idaho’s approach to school mental health was already scattered. Then COVID hit.

Editor’s Note: This story begins a weeklong series about youth access to mental health services in Idaho schools, funded by a grant from the Solutions Journalism Network. Over the series, Idaho Education News explores the ways some Idaho districts are helping students manage mental health and get connected to services, as well as the challenges COVID-19 posed for Idaho’s school-based mental health efforts.

Marie felt like the world was caving in.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the Nampa sophomore was glad for a break from high school. Rest turned to agitation as school resumed online, but her regular routine did not. Marie’s social circle shrank from 20 classmates to the eight people in her boyfriend’s home, where she had taken up residence only months before. As she played with his siblings and cooked meals with his family, she worried about her own. Her mother and brother were homeless, sometimes turned away from shelters because of COVID-19 protocols. Guilt over her stable situation joined the chorus of worry and isolation. 

Marie asked her school therapist if they could increase Zoom visits to once a week. 

“There was just a lot going on in my life. I needed a little bit more support,” said Marie, who asked that EdNews use her middle name. “After our meetings, I usually feel a lot better.”

Idaho’s need for youth mental health support is extensive, urgent and inflamed by COVID-19. But access to the kinds of supports that helped Marie is not universal.

The Gem State is consistently ranked at the top of national lists for youth suicides, and the bottom for youth access to mental health care — and that was before a global pandemic disrupted in-person services and piled isolation and anxiety on already burdened youth.  

Left unaddressed, mental health challenges can impact a student’s engagement, behavior and academic success. School is one of the most likely places for mental health needs to be detected, and educators can play a key role in intervening and connecting families with critical services.

States across the country have put increased focus on mental health in schools for several years. Momentum is building in Idaho, but the state lacks a cohesive plan to ensure services from district to district. Educators say they need time, funding and clear expectations for how to help students’ mental wellbeing. 

Some districts have stepped up to improve their students’ connections with mental health services. Promising efforts were budding in pockets of the state when the pandemic dealt a blow, overloading schools, students and mental health providers. 

For all of its challenges, COVID-19 has heightened awareness around student mental health. Youth are speaking up about their needs. Adults are listening. Education leaders are optimistic the pandemic could be a catalyst for expanding help in schools.

“I don’t think I can overstate the urgency of this particular topic,” said Debbie Critchfield, president of the State Board of Education.

One in five youth has a mental health concern

National figures suggest that one in five youth have a diagnosable mental health concern, but only about 30 percent of those students will ever get treated. Students could be up to 10 times more likely to seek help if services are offered in school.

Idaho has no requirements that a school provide mental health services for all students. Teaching “social-emotional learning,” which includes key skills like recognizing and regulating emotional stress, is likewise optional.  Other states like North Dakota, have a dedicated framework for addressing youth behavioral health, or expectations for social-emotional learning benchmarks, like Nevada

Whether an Idaho student can access services at school depends largely on where they live, and the outlook of their district leaders.

Click here for a look at individual school districts.

Most superintendents believe that providing mental and behavioral health services helps students feel safe at school and helps them learn, according to a survey commissioned by the State Department of Education. But only 60 percent said they use some kind of behavioral health practice or strategy, like trauma-informed practices, to respond to all students’ needs. Less than a third have a structured behavioral health program, with goals, evaluations and outcomes. 

Rural districts and charter schools are less likely to provide behavioral health services than urban ones. 

News Read More: Idaho’s approach to school mental health was already scattered. Then COVID hit.

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