Adolescence is a hurricane. Friendships, family matters, schoolwork, extracurriculars, jobs, and social media bluster around youth. Some could use a hand to help them through.
A 2020 national survey revealed that nearly 17 percent of youth 12 to 17 had suffered a “major depressive episode” within a year. A 2021 survey of Washington state 12th graders revealed that 45 percent felt depressed. Suicide is the second leading cause of death in the state of Washington for youth 10–24 years old.
The statistics are stunning, and their story is clear: youth need help.
“Last year, when I was undergoing severe depression, I felt trapped,” said Shae Dolan, a student from Tacoma and chair of the Washington Legislative Youth Advisory Council. “But my experience is far from unique. Students across Washington feel pressure to choose between their mental health and school performance.”
Students could sometimes use a day to overcome anxiety. A new state law took effect this past June, approving mental health reasons as justification for an excused absence from school. Self-care will not be confused for truancy in Washington state.
“Students need to know we’re there for them,” said Rep. Lisa Callan, a sponsor of the bill. “Mental health is health. We’re trying to give students resources to feel well and stay well.”
As common as feelings of depression are, each student should be equipped to address them. Excused mental health days are one such tool. Another is social-emotional learning (SEL), a teaching technique that nurtures social and emotional development.
“Hope can be measured, and hope can be taught,” said Dixie Grunenfelder, executive director of student engagement and support for the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI). “SEL can help reduce suicide and mitigate depression and anxiety. It’s a high-impact thing that schools do every day.”
Ulysses S. Grant led the Union Army. A neutral atom has an electron for every proton. Positive talk can encourage yourself and classmates. Through SEL practice, students improve in history, science, and managing their emotions.
SEL is part of a broader effort to improve the “climate” of schools. The statewide Healthy Youth Survey takes a broad measure of student sentiment. The Capital Region ESD 113 “True North” program screens students for behavioral health issues and general sentiment. Programs like these help school districts, OSPI, and the governor and legislature to craft evidence-based policy responsive to how students truly feel.
School climate improvements help teachers, too. After all, the students’ learning environment is the teacher’s working environment. To advance teacher resilience, Gov. Jay Inslee signed SHB 1363 in 2021 to acknowledge secondary traumatic stress (STS); the law requires districts to monitor for STS and assist teachers showing signs.
Nutrition is another significant factor in student wellness and nearly half of Washington students are at risk of food insecurity. 47% of Washington students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches. Inslee signed a bill in 2018 to increase “Breakfast After the Bell” programs that allow students to enjoy a healthy breakfast during class.
By improving the school climate, the state and local school districts hope for each student feels welcome, nurtured, and supported at school.
Many students wrestle with trauma or feelings that require intervention. Discovering those students and serving them resources are both critical.
OSPI implements a Multi-Tiered System of Support (MTSS) framework to respond to student needs. Tier 1 layers support the entire student body, while Tier 2 and Tier 3 supports are more targeted interventions to support individual students.
When a student reaches the third tier, they may require professional mental health support. Therein lies an important issue: qualified school health professionals, especially in rural communities, are in short supply. Many students endure a long wait for behavioral health support of any kind.
The governor’s most recent budget proposal, followed by his signing of 2SHB 1664, called for increased student support staffing. The law bolsters the ratio of nurses, social workers, psychologists, guidance counselors, and support staff to students. It was accompanied by $90 million from the supplemental budget, a number that should multiply at the governor’s insistence in years to come.
The state first formed the Children and Youth Behavioral Health Work Group in 2016 to improve access to mental health support to children and their families. Over the years, a refrain of the work group has been a call to install mental health resources in schools to make them as accessible as possible.
One clear sign this is happening is the increasing prevalence of school-based health centers. Many students lack primary care providers, let alone access to professional mental health care. On-campus clinics make physical and mental health care accessible to the average student.
In October, Inslee visited Meadowdale High School in Lynnwood and Mount Tahoma High School in Tacoma to see their new school-based health centers. Both offer behavioral health resources in addition to traditional health care. Thanks to these clinics, students are now just a short walk from counseling or care.
“This will remove barriers for students who are trying to attend school and be educated,” said Meadowdale High School principal Dave Shockley. “Some come with serious medical, dental or social-emotional health challenges and this center will help address those needs and make sure those students are here and able to focus on learning.”
In many areas of the state, the wait for a mental health appointment with a community psychiatrist may last weeks or even months. The Mount Tahoma High School health center is staffed by a psychiatrist one day per week, allowing students and their families to set appointments or even walk in to receive professional mental health support on much shorter notice. The close proximity, reduced wait times, and often-subsidized cost of school-based health centers level common barriers between youth and mental health support.
Encouraged by early successes, the governor signed SHB 1225 in 2021 establishing a school-based health center program office within the state Department of Health to multiply these clinics. Roughly 50 now operate around the state, and more will follow.
Many underrepresented groups are overrepresented in depression and suicide statistics. Students of color, students of indigenous descent, and LBGTQ+ students suffer rates of depression and suicide far above the mean.
Information gathered by the Harborview Injury Prevention & Research Center showed that 60.4 percent of LGBTQ+ youth reported feeling hopeless for extended periods, more than double the rate among heterosexual youth. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that among youth ages 15 to 19, the American Indian/Alaska Native (AI/AN) suicide rate was 2.7 times the non-Hispanic White rate.
“One of the biggest barriers LGBTQ+ youth face in trying to get mental health care is the fear of being outed either to the school or to their family,” said Tracy Carlos, program manager for the Washington State LGBTQ Commission. “Just look at the high percentage of LGBTQ+ youth who are homeless compared to cis straight youth — you can see that the fear is based in reality.”
“The impacts of the pandemic on native learners are in addition to previous disconnections relating back to intergenerational colonial trauma,” said Laura Lynn, interim executive director for the OSPI Office of Native Education. “The pathways for wholeness and resilience continue to be teachings of culture and teachings of elders.”
Trauma-informed practices are at the heart of state efforts to support native learners. Within the state’s seven tribal education compact schools and beyond, educators and tribal leaders are implementing models that acknowledge intergenerational trauma and elevate cultural identity. Many Washington school districts participate in a program to teach and preserve tribal languages, including the Lake Washington School District.
“The Lake Washington School district has a large urban native student population, many living off or far from their reservation and lands, and the district has gone to great lengths to nurture their identity,” said Kayla Guyett, OSPI’s tribal language liaison. “Beyond our tribal compact schools, nearly 30 more school districts are entwining traditional knowledge like language and medicine to support social and emotional learning.”
“Mental health is getting talked about. That’s probably why students are recognizing, ‘Maybe I’m not alone in this, maybe there’s something that can help me,’” said Staci Cornwell, youth mental health coordinator for the Mead School District.
Mead High School in Spokane recently held an event to emphasize student wellbeing. It wasn’t just for students — 26 community partners showed up, and even parents from outside the district attended.
Cornwell stressed the importance of community in youth mental health. The more eyes looking out for kids, the better chance that students that need help get it. That spirit is central to the Renton School District’s approach. The district has trained classified staff, including bus drivers and lunchroom staff, in SEL and trauma to better understand and encourage students.
“The problems for some of our kids are huge. We’re doing what we can,” said Vickie Blakeney, director of student support at Renton School District. “Our school climate, and the behavior modeled by adults, is important. You can’t yell at a kid to stop yelling. Adults must keep calm when kids are dysregulated, because when we get dysregulated, we can add to trauma. Adults need this as much as kids.”
“School starts when kids board the bus,” continued Blakeney. “The hope is that they start their day by hearing, ‘Good morning, how are you?’ Our bus drivers are working together to design common practices to support students’ social and emotional health.”
Lending an ear might make all the difference in the world to a child. Bus drivers, teachers, legislators, and the governor are all listening closely, eager to help.