Rural school district fights back against student mental health crisis

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Rural school district fights back against student mental health crisis


News Photo by Julie Riddle
As Alcona Community Schools district social worker Travis Boik looks on, Kimberly Carter, school nurse, and eighth grader Adonia Schott talk in Carter’s office at the district’s middle/high school building on Friday.

LINCOLN — It’s not easy being a kid these days, eighth grader Adonia Schott said.

With social media spewing negativity and adults not always willing to listen, young people find themselves struggling to trust and to feel safe, the Alcona Community Schools student said.

At schools across the country, the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated an already escalating mental health crisis among young people, health authorities say, with students increasingly battling serious mental health issues even as schools struggle to hire more workers to help them.

In rural Northeast Michigan, a small school district is trying to counteract the growing problem – and the extra stresses of rural childhood – with the help of a pool of mental health workers carrying heavy caseloads.

In-school access to those workers helps kids be OK, said Schott. A school therapist gives her the support she needs to cope with the struggles of being young in 2022, she said.

News Photo by Julie Riddle
Kimberly Carter, school nurse for Alcona Community Schools, and eighth grader Adonia Schott exchange a laugh in Carter’s office at the district’s middle/high school building on Friday.

Not all adults understand young people and the challenges they face, though, the middle schooler said.

“You’re going to think you do,” she said, “but you don’t.”

‘THROUGH THE ROOF’

Lately, stress and anxiety among the district’s students is “just through the roof,” said district Middle/High School Principal Christie Thomas.

Soaring rates of depression, anxiety, loneliness, and trauma – intensifying a crisis already in motion pre-pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported – caused the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and the Children’s Hospital Association in October to declare a national emergency in children’s mental health.

Even a small, rural school district can’t hide from such trends.

In Alcona County, the three school therapists serving the 700-student district carry caseloads of 30 to 40 students apiece, not including crisis response.

The district hopes to hire another therapist, if they can find someone to fill the position.

Though the state encouraged schools to hire mental health workers by offering grants, school officials statewide say they can’t find workers qualified for those jobs.

HIRED TO HELP

Travis Boik started as the Alcona County district’s social worker about a month ago, thanks to one such grant.

Michigan schools provide one social worker for every 1,750 students – a far cry from the recommended ratio of one for every 250 students, according to a nationwide school mental health report compiled by representatives of mental health advocacy groups in February.

With five workers directly intervening with student mental health needs, Boik called his school district’s coverage level “unheard-of.”

He also said students need all the help they can get these days.

Virtual learning upped student stress even after a return to classrooms, with middle school students struggling with structure they’d learned to live without and little learners behind on basic skills like standing in line or sitting still, Boik said.

The same electronic devices that kept students connected to their schools also endanger students’ mental health, filling late-night hours with social media-driven anxiety and sending the students to school the next day exhausted, Boik said.

Kids are always tired these days, with short fuses and unable to concentrate on their studies, said Kimberly Carter, the district’s school nurse.

In a position newly created by the district, also using a state grant, Carter sees a continuous stream of students in her school bathroom-turned-office, many of them complaining of stomach aches and headaches tied more to emotional trauma than to physical woes, Carter said.

RURAL CHALLENGES

In a county with an unemployment rate above that of the state and in which nearly a third of children live in poverty, according to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, school mental health supports may offer the only way students and their caregivers can access mental health care.

Recently, parents thanked Carter for giving their child an over-the-counter pain reliever. They couldn’t afford it themselves, they told her.

Another parent told her they can’t buy medicine because they don’t have a car, Carter said.

The nearest mental health care outside the school is a long drive away, an obstacle made greater if the family has no car or if the student’s caregiver has lost their driver’s license.

Rural-county school bus rides of an hour or more yank kids out of bed early and deprive them of after-school tutoring or activities that could strengthen their sense of well-being.

Long distances between rural homes mean less sense of community support and fewer neighbors on whom to rely for a playmate or a favor, taking another toll on childhood mental health, Carter said.

The district’s roster includes many homeless students, and the many young parents in the county don’t know how to provide the stability children need to feel secure, the school nurse said.

“The kids up here, they’ve been through a lot of trauma,” Carter said. “A lot.”

‘BE THERE’

Adults can help children cope, even without social work degrees, the new Alcona Community Schools workers said.

“Put your phones down when you’re talking to your kids,” Boik said, and pay attention to what children consume on their own devices.

Be the tough guy, said Carter, who encourages parents to resist the urge to be their child’s friend.

If children get overwhelmed, “Let them blow up,” Carter said. “They might feel better.”

A rural region can also be good for mental health, Boik said, pointing out the 43 acres behind the district’s buildings where three miles of trails offer space for students to wander and find peace.

Up North kids grow up loving fishing, hunting, and the outdoors, all in ample supply in the county, with psychological studies pointing to the positive impact of nature on mental health, he said.

In a previous job, Boik led an anger management fishing group, something he hopes to introduce to his Alcona County students.

Meanwhile, the school district’s mental and physical health professionals will continue to open their doors to kids who need help feeling better.

Schott, the eighth grader, offered advice for parents who want to help their kids be OK.

“Be there,” Schott said. “Just be understanding.”

Julie Riddle can be reached at 989-358-5693 or jriddle@thealpenanews.com. Follow her on Twitter @jriddleX.

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