State gets $9 million to address mental health in 3 school districts; survey finds teens statewide having more mental-health issues

By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News

The school districts of Bullitt, Henderson and Warren counties will participate in a five-year, $9 million program to increase awareness of mental-health issues among Kentucky students.

The $9 million grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and the Center for Mental Health Services was awarded to the Kentucky Department of Education and the Department for Behavioral Health, Developmental and Intellectual Disabilities, which is is a part of the state’s health cabinet.

The money will be used to implement mental-health policies and processes in the districts. Kentucky is one of four states receiving the Advancing Wellness And Resilience in Education (AWARE) grants.

“We know that one in six students experience mental-health challenges that impact their academic achievement. However, less than half of them receive adequate treatment,” Wendy Morris, commissioner of the behavioral health department, said in the news release. “Partnerships between schools and local mental health providers allow identification and referral systems to be built so concerns can be detected and addressed earlier which creates the best opportunity to help the student.”

A biennial survey of the state’s youth shows that mental-health issues abound in its schools.

The Kentucky Incentives for Prevention survey primarily assesses alcohol, tobacco and other drug use, but it also looks at suicide and other high risk behaviors. It is taken by sixth, eighth, 10th and 12th graders in participating schools every two years. In 2018, more than 159,000 students in 151 of the state’s 173 public-school districts took the survey. Its results were released April 25 by the Substance Abuse Prevention Program in the state’s behavioral-health department.

One issue that school-aged children across the nation deal with is bullying, and that’s no different in Kentucky. The survey found that while bullying is especially prevalent in the lower grades, with 29% of sixth graders and 27% of eighth graders reporting they have been bullied on school property in the past year, it’s also high in the upper grades with 20.9% of 10th graders and 15.7% of 12th graders reporting such behavior.

The survey also found that a good number of Kentucky’s teens have suffered from serious psychological distress, such as depression or anxiety, in the past 30 days: 10.8% of sixth graders; 17% of eighth graders; 22.3% of 10th graders; and 22.1% of 12th graders. All of these rates were higher in 2018 than in 2016.

The survey also found that many of Kentucky’s youth also struggle with thoughts, and actions, of suicide and self-harm.

For example, 10.6% of sixth graders, 16.4% of eighth graders, 19.5% of 10th graders, and 18.5% of 12th graders said they had ever cut or harmed themselves on purpose.

The percentage of sixth, eighth, and 12th graders who said they had seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year increased since 2016, going from 6.4% to 8.5% among sixth graders; from 12.9% to 14.1% among eighth graders; and from 13.1% to 14.1% among 12th graders. The rate for 10th graders, high-school sophomores, stayed at 15.7%.

Many of those students said they had made a plan about how they would attempt suicide: 6.1% of sixth graders said they had, up from 4.7% in 2016. The rates in the other grades stayed stable, with 10.4% of eighth graders, 12.2% of 10th graders and 10.6% of 12th graders reporting they had planned how they would attempt suicide.

The percentage of actual suicide attempts increased in every age group, with 5.7% of sixth graders reporting they had actually attempted suicide at least one time in the past year, up from 4.2% in 2016; 8.2% of eighth graders, up from 7.3%; 8.4% of 10th graders, up from 8.2% and 6.5% of 12th graders, up from 5.7%.

The AWARE grant will be used to enhance school mental health supports, provide “youth mental health first-aid training,” implement trauma-informed practices, and generally improve social emotional skills for students in the districts.

The news release touted the grant funding as a way to help implement the School Safety and Resiliency Act, or Senate Bill 1, that among other things calls for one trained school resource officer in every school and one guidance counselor for every 250 students by July 1, 2021 or as funds and qualified personnel become available. The bill did not include funding.

Schools will also be able to bill Medicaid for both physical and behavioral health for all students enrolled in Medicaid by the start of the next school year, according to Kristi Putnam, deputy secretary of the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services. Currently, Kentucky schools can only bill Medicaid for students who are disabled or meet other limited criteria.

The project will serve 37,556 students annually for 5 years and affect 375 school administrators, 3,292 school staff, and over 1,000 parents and community members, the release said.

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