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Ohio Schools Seek to Adapt to Mental Health Crisis


Monday, August 29, 2022   

By Andrew Kuder / Broadcast version by Mary Schuermann reporting for the Kent State-Ohio News Connection Collaboration.

Over the past few years, mental health issues among teens in the U.S. have skyrocketed. According to the CDC, suicide rates among people ages 10-24 increased by 60% from 2007 to 2018.

Now, experts say the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated many of the issues that caused these trends.

"Now we've seen the effects of children who were isolated - especially those couple of years - having such a hard time adjusting now. And the social isolation, now coming back to school, the depression and anxiety is really increasing," said Karyn Kravetz, Associate Director of the Portage County Mental Health and Recovery Board.

In addition to a rise in depression and anxiety, this also had an impact on students' development. "A lot of the behaviors that are exhibited are exhibited because students are not in a good situation, either physical environment or mental health-wise," said Debbi Bailey, a consultant for one of Ohio's State Support Teams, which are groups of educators who help local school districts improve student experiences and outcomes.

With fewer options to interact with others, many children and teens turned to social media for communication. However, some experts believe that this increase in social media use without a proper school environment had a negative effect on the children's development.

"In our new age of technology and social media apps, being able to teach our students just some of those critical life skills is important," said Krista Allison, a consultant for the Stark County Educational Service Center.

Allison has seen firsthand how technology has changed the way students communicate with each other. "I remember being in a school once, and I was sitting there as the students were getting ready to get on a bus," she said, "And they were texting each other, but they weren't talking, and I remember asking and they said 'Oh yeah, we're talking to each other,' but they weren't communicating like we're communicating."

In a survey by the CDC, 14.9% of the interviewed students reported being electronically bullied, with female students more likely to experience it than male students.

However, that isn't to say that social media does not have its benefits; it can encourage users to be more open about their mental health.

"They see, say, maybe some famous people, some athletes, some other role models who have come out and talked about their struggles with mental illness," said Kravetz. "And that makes them not as embarrassed now to say that they have issues and they see a counselor."

The pandemic brought many changes to the American education system, the effects of which are still being felt two years later. From rising mental health issues in students to children experiencing delays in their social and emotional skills, parents and schools need to adapt to these changes and work harder to provide students with sufficient learning environments. This can apply to children as young as five years old.

"We know that early learning is really, really, a very critical time for children because it is the building of the foundation," said Bailey. "The first five years of a child's life are when they are absorbing the most and forming those attachments."

School attendance has also been an issue. According to the Ohio Department of Education, there was a 3% decrease in pre K-12 enrollment between fall 2019 and spring 2020, which is significantly higher than the 0.03-0.04% of the previous three years. In addition, the department says that chronic absenteeism has also been an issue.

"We're trying to help people to back up and look at: How can we support students in a way that they do want to come to the classroom...able to learn and function in the classroom in a healthy way?" said Bailey.

One way Ohio has worked to solve these issues through the use of Social and Emotional Learning (SEL), which is a set of standards for schools to measure how their students are developing. The standards were adopted by Ohio in June 2019.

Some ways Ohio has expanded SEL practices include reaching out to students on platforms like Twitter and providing documents for parents which highlight examples of how to improve their children's social, behavioral, and emotional health, according to a report from the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL).

One way Ohio has worked to solve these issues is through the use of State Support Teams. The goal of the State Support Teams is to work with schools across 16 regions in the state to improve the overall quality of students' education. This includes helping manage each school's meetings and checking students' progress in order to find which areas can be improved.

"We need to really be thinking about, 'How do we create an atmosphere where students can be supported at the education level [in the classroom]?'" said Bailey, who works on a State Support Team based in Canton.

This collaboration is produced in association with Media in the Public Interest and funded in part by the George Gund Foundation.

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