The first year of the COVID pandemic increased global cases of anxiety and depression by 25%, according to the World Health Organization. Last year, the American Academy of Pediatrics declared a national child and adolescent mental health emergency.
“I think there’s been a lot of them socially and then socioeconomically because of the pandemic we’re in,” said Lauren Bialon, who lives in Elk River and has three children. We went through a pandemic, our children were locked up for nine months, and school suddenly stopped. They couldn’t see anyone.”
At the same time, children have unprecedented access to social media. Bayalon feels that stress also contributes to the ongoing mental health crisis in young people.
She became an advocate for better access to mental health support and treatment. Her 14-year-old daughter faced a mental health crisis last year.
“Growing up, I struggled with my mental health and was diagnosed with depression and ADHD,” she said. “So your child is in crisis and nothing can prepare you. None of your own life experiences, nothing that can prepare you for that when your child is in crisis.”
She explained that they discovered that her daughter was harming herself and immediately called for help. However, she was still in middle school, where the other students were also struggling.
“I signed up with a group of girls at school who were unfortunately in the same state of mind as they were at the time,” Bialon said. “Together, they planned to end their lives.”
When they learned of these plans, they were able to step in and get extra help for their daughter, including in-hospital treatment. The eighth grader has finished her last year of middle school online and is now starting the ninth grade remotely.
However, Bayalon feels that her daughter’s school district did not take the girls’ intentions seriously at first.
“If there was a mental health professional to take over this from a guidance counselor, I feel like things might have been different, and red flags might have been detected,” she said. “Given our specific case, it all stemmed from the school. This group of girls were there together at school, and they were conveying their plans on school property, on school equipment.”
On Wednesday evening, she joined Hennepin County Commissioner Kevin Anderson for a panel discussion on how to improve mental health support for students. There were also leaders from various school districts and law enforcement.
“I have four kids, two of whom are in middle school, so I know the stress kids go through, and I see that in my family,” Commissioner Anderson said. “I know families all over Hennepin are going through the same thing.”
“The goal for me is to make sure we get help for people when they need it and where they need it,” he added.
In September 2021, Hennepin County committed $20 million to invest in mental health services. About $2.2 million was directed specifically to expanding school mental health services.
“One of the goals we had was to make sure we had some mental health service providers in the school at every Hennepin County public school,” Commissioner Anderson said.
According to Hennepin County, the additional funding allowed the county to expand its school mental health program to include 24 additional schools. It’s now in all 231 public schools and 100% of the district’s districts. The expansion supports an additional 1,000 students each year.
The funding enables eight mental health providers to partner with schools to include a full-time mental health professional who can provide direct clinical treatment services to students and families at each school, according to the district.
“At this point, we have the ability to have a resource in every Hennepin County public school. Staffing is definitely an issue,” Commissioner Anderson acknowledged. “I think there is a lot of work that remains to be done and the need is so great there that I don’t think we can rest. Until we really make the difference and see the difference.”
Oseo District Principal Cory McIntyre has seen firsthand how the pandemic has amplified the stress on students.
“I think that’s kind of in every region right now,” he said. We have seen increased levels of anxiety, behavioral regulation and depression. Avoidance can appear in attendance.”
According to Hennepin County, young adults with mental illness are twice as likely to drop out of school.
McIntyre explained that they rely on psychologists, nurses, and counselors at the school to meet the need.
“Demand is outstripping supply so to speak, when it comes to having enough people to provide these services,” he said. About a third of our schools are understaffed. We have identified and funded the jobs and don’t have the people to fill them.”
According to McIntyre, there are ten locations within the region that do not currently have a designated processor.
“It’s really hard to find medical staff at the moment. There’s just a shortage,” he said. “It’s a staff crisis.”
McIntyre joined Commissioner Anderson and Bialon for Wednesday’s session to discuss how to improve mental health support for students.
“How can we solve this together instead of doing this in isolation?” McIntyre said.
As an advocate for other families, Bayalon also shares a message of hope and the story of her daughter’s resilience and strength.
She’s a good kid, really a good kid,” said Bialon. “Everyone struggles sometimes and one of the things we say with parenting teens is that there is no such thing as a broken child, just broken systems and we have to figure out which ones are broken and fix them.”
Call or text 988 to contact a crisis counselor if you are struggling and need support.