Rise of student mental health issues the focus of Kan. school safety panel

Via Peters

By NOAH TABORDA
Kansas Reflector

TOPEKA — A rise in youth suicide rates, accompanied by increased
reports of anxiety and depression among school-age children, has a
Kansas panel focused on pandemic safety in the classroom concerned as
the pandemic drags on.

Kelli Netson, a neuropsychologist, kicked off a panel discussion on
pandemic-related mental health issues in Kansas by noting statistics
that suggest upward of 50% of youths are reporting increased distress
levels. This has manifested itself in anxiety and depression, so while
they may not have a diagnosis, they are reporting much higher levels of
stress than in years past.

While the holidays and winter break may provide an outlet for some to
relieve stress, Netson said, for some going home can be just as
difficult.

“I have concerns about what the next six weeks look like,” Netson
said. “We as parents should be listening to what our kids are seeking,
listening to what kids are experiencing, validating those experiences
and then just letting your kids talk.”

The Safer Classrooms Workgroup’s discussion on Wednesday came after the nation’s top physician reported
young people are facing “devastating” mental health effects as a result
of the pandemic. The 53-page report noted emergency room visits from
youths suffering from mental health issues are on the rise.

Emergency room visits for suicide attempts increased by 51% for
adolescent girls and 4% for boys in early 2021 compared with the same
period in 2019.

Stephanie Kuhlmann, a panel member and pediatric hospitalist division
director at Wesley Children’s Hospital, said the mental health issues
extend to hospital staff treating these students and teachers working to
educate them.

“The resurgence of COVID numbers in our rural communities, and even
here in our higher-populated communities, which comes at the time of the
holidays, continues to put a stress and burden on our already burnt-out
workers,” Kuhlmann said.

In October, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy
of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and the Children’s Hospital
Association joined to declare “a national emergency” in youth mental
health. One issue is an increase in deaths from overdoses because of
self-medication.

Kimber Kasitz, director of health for Wichita Public Schools, also
has been working with the School Mental Health Advisory Council, which
is considering both ongoing and future issues that could arise.

“We’re really empowering the school districts to not just identify
kids with these issues, but what happens after they go into an inpatient
hospital setting for psychiatric treatment,” Kasitz said. “What does
that process look like while still maintaining confidentiality for that
child, while also communicating with the parents and the hospital, the
clinic, whoever, so that we can develop a safety plan.”

The frequently changing dynamics of the pandemic has led to increased
stressors for youths and teachers, said Kansas education commissioner
Randy Watson. Currently there are 49 active outbreaks in schools across
the state, down from 53 last week.

Watson acknowledged the uncertainty ahead. Wednesday’s meeting of the safer classrooms panel is the last one scheduled.

“We’re in a constant churn of kids being quarantined or being taken
out because of viral load,” Watson said. “And a teacher every day
doesn’t know what they are going to have to plan for. Sometimes when
you’re in the daily fight, as all of us are, you lose sight of where
we’ve been since (the beginning of the pandemic) and the different ways
in which we’ve all had to respond to this crisis.”

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