School Funding

Utah’s mental health is declining amid COVID-19. What is being done to help?


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Long before COVID-19, Utah schools reported the need for mental health services far exceeded the supply.

Then came the pandemic, which has contributed to an exponential increase in needs and referrals to community mental health agencies. Meanwhile, community and private mental health care providers have faced a wave of demands for services from the adult population, whose care needs have been exposed or worsened due to forced isolation by the pandemic.

State lawmakers have taken incremental steps in recent years that have resulted in better access to care and better outcomes for many Utahns, but there is much to be discovered about mental illness and effective treatments and the need for it. ” expand the pool of service providers.

A massive new mental health facility is coming

Earlier this week, the Credit Executive Committee took an important step to expand access to healthcare and support research leading to breakthrough treatments by approving $ 90 million in funding for the translational research building of the ‘Utah at the Huntsman Institute of Mental Health at the University of Utah.

The $ 90 million in public funds will be combined with $ 65 million in private donations to create a public-private partnership in support of the research and care facility. Funding was prioritized at a special session of the Utah legislature in May as part of the $ 1.6 billion Utah accepted in COVID-19 relief funds.

Educators and researchers at universities and colleges statewide will use the facility to partner with the Huntsman Mental Health Institute on research, treatment and training initiatives.

“If we are to tackle big issues like suicide, children’s mental health and substance use, we will need to bring together teams of experts in basic sciences, translational sciences, law, technology, AI and in policies to address these issues holistically, ”said Dr. Mark Rapaport, CEO of the Huntsman Institute of Mental Health.

University officials say the facility will catapult Utah to the forefront of mental health research and care as demand for care grows exponentially.

Children’s mental health: a growing problem

In a presentation to the Utah Legislature’s Interim Education Committee this week, state education officials told lawmakers that a mid-size Utah school district has referred 61 students to mental health service providers during the 2019-2020 school year. The following year, the number of references increased to 307.

“That’s a 403% increase in students who the district said needed these community referrals,” said Ashley Lower, a behavior specialist with the Safe and Healthy Schools team at the Board of Education. Utah.

Salt Lake City School District Board Member Mohamed Baayd, right, greets students and hands out masks as they arrive at East High School in Salt Lake City for their first day of learning in person for almost a year on Monday, February 8, 2021.
Steve Griffin, Deseret News

Recent surveys of students and teachers indicate growing anxiety and despair, she said.

The 2019 Student Health and Risk Prevention Survey showed that 10.7% of students felt unsafe going to school a day or more, up from 7.3% in 2015.

The results of the SHARP survey, administered to grade 6, 8, 10 and 12 students in most public schools in Utah, also indicated a growing number of students who have felt sad or hopeless for two weeks. or more in the past year. The percentage rose from 22.7%. in 2015 to 28.2% in 2019.

The SHARP The survey helps educators and other government agencies track trends, plan programs, and deploy resources.

Meanwhile, the 2021 climate survey administered to educators and special education educators showed that more than half of teachers felt overwhelmed, with 58% of special educators and 57% of general educators reporting feeling overwhelmed. Sixty percent of special educators reported feeling stressed, which was almost the same among general educators at 59%.

In both groups, about 10% said they felt depressed. Six percent of regular educators and 5% of special educators surveyed said they felt angry, according to the survey.

Lower said the survey showed the percentage of special educators who felt stressed or overwhelmed the majority of the time at work “was higher than the percentage who felt excited at work … and gives us a little idea of ​​our education teachers. specialist, and how they might feel at work.

A “turning point” for aid in schools

In recent years, the Utah legislature has prioritized mental health resources and policies that attempt to meet the significant need for additional services for students.

Sevier School District Superintendent Cade Douglas reflected on his testimony to State 3 lawmakers1??2 years ago, after four students in the school district committed suicide.

“It was a very difficult time in our riding. We had really seen an increase in suicides. Our riding, Sevier County, had not seen school-aged children commit suicide, and we had four at the time when I came to testify before this organization, asking for help, pleading for collaborative efforts, funding and a program, ”said Douglas.

The passage of HB373, sponsored by Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, was a turning point, he said. The bill has allocated some $ 27 million in permanent funding to the State School Board for academic support staff and allows schools to contract with local mental health authorities for students who need clinical services.

The Sevier School District initially hired a mental health coordinator to serve the 12 schools in the district. Later, with funds allocated under the Teacher and Student Success Act and other funds, the school district hired six coordinators, who serve two schools each.

The coordinator / therapists work with students on resilience, self-esteem, emotional security, and anxiety, among others. They work with whole classes, in small groups and sometimes with individual students. They also help families with resources outside of school.

Since the first four suicide deaths, two other students have committed suicide. Then there were no more for two years.

“We had one in March, unfortunately, but the trends look a lot better. We have some success, ”said Douglas.

Another statewide resource backed by state funds, the SafeUT app has also been helpful, said Douglas.

SafeUT Confidentially connect students to crisis and suicide prevention resources and allows students to provide advice anonymously on perceived threats in schools, which is passed on to school contacts.

“It’s very helpful. It continues to improve, in my opinion, every year,” said Douglas. Sometimes the advice shared through the app can overwhelm managers and directors.

“It’s just a constant thing that they send them messages, ‘You have a student struggling with this or that.’ We give up everything we do and provide support to these students every time. So it’s a very well developed app and it’s worth every penny in my opinion. It’s very effective, “he said. .

In recent years, the University of Utah School of Medicine has added new psychiatry residency niches to help meet Utah’s mental health care needs, which has also been approved by lawmakers. of State.

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