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More KC schoolkids are asking for help with their mental health. A few are finding it

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More KC schoolkids are asking for help with their mental health. A few are finding it

May 29, 2024 | 9:00 am ET
By Suzanne King
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More KC schoolkids are asking for help with their mental health. A few are finding it
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The reasons behind the rise in mental health issues among children and adolescents remain unclear. Mental health professionals often point to smartphones, social media and — a big one — the hangover from the pandemic shutdown (Getty Images).

Melvin White sits with his generation at a demographic Ground Zero for mental stress.

The Schlagle High School junior survived COVID isolation during middle school. He’s never known a world without smartphones. And he’s finishing high school amid the FOMO energy of a social media world in its own adolescence.

All of those factors, experts say, put Melvin and his classmates at the center of uncharted ground for mental health. It has psychiatric professionals worried about suicides for the most troubled kids and recognizing serious problems among more kids than have been recorded before.

Melvin is one of the lucky ones. He got a spot in his school’s Becoming a Man, or BAM program, which teaches middle and high school students how to process trauma, deal with anger, interact with friends and set goals. Its counterpart for girls is Working on Womanhood, or WOW.

Melvin has spent an hour a week for the last two years in a group counseling session — talking with other boys and a counselor about school stress, friend issues or whatever else is on their minds.

The experience, Melvin said, changed him.

“Before, I wasn’t confident in myself,” he said recently at a youth summit sponsored by Youth Guidance, the national organization that runs BAM and WOW.  “I was very shy. And I was very, like, depressed and … I wasn’t taking care of myself.”

Now, Melvin, who works part time at Skate City and loves to read and play sports, imagines a future after high school. A future he’s even excited about.

“I want to go to the military,” he said, a smile crossing his face, “and see where that takes me.”

The reasons behind the rise in mental health issues among children and adolescents remain unclear. Mental health professionals often point to smartphones, social media and — a big one — the hangover from the pandemic shutdown. Younger people also possess a growing desire for mental health care and are more willing to ask for it.

But whatever the cause, the reality is that many young patients in need of care go untreated. And that is raising alarms — all the more concerning because this generation of parents, counselors and kids is the first to deal with the aftereffects of the pandemic, the consequences of social media or what never-ending alerts on kids’ phones might mean for their well-being.

Youth mental health ’emergency’

The U.S. surgeon general in 2021 put out an advisory that drew attention to the issue, calling the challenges today’s young people must face “unprecedented and uniquely hard to navigate.”

“Too often, young people are bombarded with messages through the media and popular culture that erode their sense of self-worth,” wrote Dr. Vivek H. Murthy, “telling them they are not good looking enough, popular enough, smart enough, or rich enough.”

Even before COVID shut down the world, replacing classroom discussions, exchanges in the hallway and rides home on the bus with endless screen time, kids already were anxious, Murthy said. They fretted about a gone-wild climate, the growing gap between rich and poor, racism and the ravage of opioids and guns.

The pandemic shutdown poured gasoline on that anxiety. The isolation it brought left gaping holes in kids’ social skills and changed the reality they understood, experts said.

“We came back to school and we pressed go,” said Garrett M. Webster Sr., executive director of Youth Guidance Kansas City. “We didn’t really think about the impact of what had been normalized. There was so much talk for at least two years about getting back to normal, without realizing that there was a new normal.”

The isolation of the pandemic also shone a light on the country’s shaky mental health infrastructure.

Major medical organizations like the American Academy of Pediatrics declared a national emergency in child and adolescent mental health in 2021. And a broad coalition of health care and social service organizations in 2023 put out a document of principles. It identified nine areas that could help stem the crisis, such as reaching kids sooner, bolstering the mental health workforce and adding mental health care at schools and in pediatricians’ offices.

The last couple of years have seen some progress, said Dr. Marian F. Earls, who chairs the AAP’s Council on Healthy Mental & Emotional Development.

For example, the federal agency that oversees Medicaid has changed rules that could increase benefits available for mental health care and make it easier to get coverage for school-based behavioral health services. And the federal government put more money into the Pediatric Mental Health Care Access Program, a network of mental health care teams that consult and train pediatricians.

In Kansas, a program is joining community mental health centers and school districts to get treatment to kids.

“There are so many good, hopeful things happening,” Earls said. “The awareness of folks is so much higher. We have the opportunity to address things earlier and better than we have.”

But, the work is far from done, she said.

Start with medical insurance. Because it’s hard for clinics to get paid, it’s hard to get help. The byzantine rules of American health care billing stump families and frustrate mental health providers, made worse by state-by-state quirks.

“We still have a long way to go,” Earls said.

Psychiatrists, psychologists and other providers are often in short supply. Psychiatric hospitals have closed, in part, because of low reimbursement rates. And many people — especially children — can’t get care.

No true health care without mental health care

Children’s Mercy Hospital has seen a 67% increase in referrals for mental health services since 2017. Only 166 psychiatric beds for children and adolescents exist within 45 minutes of Kansas City, and those beds aren’t available to some patients who have other medical conditions or certain neurodevelopmental disorders.

The hospital estimates that between 40% and 50% of kids who need mental health care in the Kansas City area may go untreated.

Last summer, Children’s Mercy announced a $150 million fundraising campaign to put more money into the problem. Among other things, the hospital is working to embed mental health professionals in schools and pediatrician practices, add psychiatric beds for kids and open an outpatient facility that can serve kids who need mental health services in a school-like setting.

That will be a start, said Dr. Bob Batterson, who leads the hospital’s Developmental and Behavioral Health division. But COVID left an enormous need where there was already a growing void, he said.

“There is no true health care without mental health care,” Batterson said. “It all is one package.”

Britney Sanders, a care coordinator with the Wyandot Behavioral Health Network, said she thinks young people are more aware of mental health issues than older generations. But knowing you need help doesn’t matter if you can’t find it. And help should come before a crisis develops, she said.

“There needs to be more services at a prevention level versus an intervention level,” Sanders said.

Remember BAM and WOW, the programs that bring group counseling to middle and high schools? This year, they reached about 700 middle and high school students in the Center, Hickman Mills and Kansas City, Kansas, school districts.

Youth Guidance, the organization behind BAM and WOW, hopes to expand into additional Kansas City-area school districts. The nonprofit is funded through a mix of private donations and tax dollars.

The programs are working, Webster said. By Youth Guidance’s calculations, girls involved with WOW in the Kansas City districts saw a 62% reduction in anxiety symptoms and a 71% drop in depression symptoms.

Zoie Harrington, a junior in WOW at Ruskin High School, said the Tuesday afternoon group meetings she went to throughout the school year gave her a needed outlet to take a breath between school work and theater rehearsals.

“It’s a safe space for girls to figure themselves out,” she said.

BAM and WOW reach kids who probably wouldn’t have another outlet to get help. Yet they are also kids — often from poor neighborhoods where violence and other trauma are commonplace — who need help the most.

“I love helping young men in general, but especially the ones that look like me,” said Jaron Reed, a counselor with the BAM program at Ruskin who is Black.

He’s teaching his students skills for dealing with stress and trauma and just giving them an opening to feel their emotions. In Reed’s classroom, boys can toss a basketball through a mini hoop if they need to blow off steam. They can yell and get upset. Or they can just talk.

“This is their safe space,” Reed said. “Anything that happens in the room, stays in the room. And we’re treating each other with integrity.”

The social and emotional skills the boys are learning, Reed said, will serve them throughout their lives.

“When I was their age, I didn’t have anybody to guide me and help counsel me in that aspect,” he said. “It took me a while to get where I was going. But if I can give them a head start, that’s all the better.”

This article first appeared on The Beacon and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

More KC schoolkids are asking for help with their mental health. A few are finding it