CHARLESTON, WV (WOWK) – Schools across the country are struggling to provide students with the mental health support they need. While more children are finding themselves in a state of crisis, education leaders are struggling to fill vital positions with people qualified to provide that necessary help. For schools, the aftermath of the pandemic coupled with other factors has led to a perfect storm. 

“The pandemic I think really brought to light the mental health crisis that we have,” said Kelly Mordecki, Coordinator of School Mental Health and Wellbeing at the West Virginia Department of Education. 

When it comes to the mental wellbeing of students, officials say the news is grim. More students, and a younger population of students, are thinking about or trying to take their own life, according to education officials. The biggest spike of this in West Virginia has been in the middle schools. 

“With high school students we’ve seen an increase, a significant increase in suicidal ideation from 20% to almost 28% since 2019. And then in middle school students, we’ve seen an increase kind of across the board with suicidal ideation, planning suicide and then actual attempted suicide,” said Lisha Tignor, Coordinator of School Psychology for the West Virginia Department of Education. 

“Middle school years are where they really grow,” said Kizmet Chandler, Principal at South Charleston Middle School. “Elementary school, mom and dad are really involved, and then in middle school you see the shift of family involvement pulling away. That is where we still need the family involvement, and we also need the resources to help students identify their anxieties, their triggers.”

Nationally students have struggled more since the pandemic.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) one in five young people say the pandemic had a significant negative impact on their mental health. Nearly half of young people with mental health concerns also reported that the impact of the pandemic was significant. 

NAMI says that one in six kids between the ages of 12 and 17 have experienced a major depressive episode and 3 million kids have had thoughts of suicide. There has also been a 31% increase among that age group of mental health-related emergency room visits. 

In West Virginia, school wellness leaders say other factors are contributing also. Those factors include the opioid epidemic and the number of children in foster care or being raised by grandparents or other extended family. Plus, an increase in screen time. 

“Social media is a huge problem,” said Mordecki. “Kids are bombarded 24/7 with information. A lot of the information they hear is negative. We’ve got, honestly, our adults that behave in a way that demonstrates and models poor behavior as they treat each other talking publicly in negative terms. We see that all the time and kids do pay attention to that.” 

There are programs in place to help students in crisis and to help them improve their mental health. But at a time when students are struggling the most, states, including West Virginia, are struggling to hire counselors, social workers and school psychologists. 

“We have a lot of retirements, a lot of teachers, counselors, social workers, etc. left the profession,” Mordecki said. “Then we had a lot of teacher shortages, we had a lot of mental health shortages and we had all of this mental health stuff to deal with and not enough people.”

The impact has been significant, especially when it comes to the ability to focus on students individually. 

“Currently we have one school psychologist to 1,800 kids. The recommended ratio is 500 kids,” Tignor explained.

She said there are school psychologists in West Virginia who have done counseling after school hours because they didn’t have enough time in the workday, but realized how critical it was to help. 

“If we were freer, and had smaller ratios of students, we can provide direct behavioral intervention. We can help with those consults. We can provide therapy within the schools. But we can only do so much with 40 hours in a week,” Tignor said. 

But school leaders say they are just one piece of a complex puzzle.

David Lee, director of Student Support and Wellbeing for the West Virginia Department of Education, said even if all the counseling positions were staffed it wouldn’t fix the bigger problem. 

“Naturally, it would be better if they were full, but still, what are we going to do about the parents and guardians at home? How are we going to address that issue to be able to come up with solutions for them also,” Lee said.

Teacher shortages and burnout are another key factor. After the pandemic, Kanawha County Schools implemented the TeacherWISE program, a peer-to-peer effort that focuses on teachers’ mental health.

“I mean it puts a lot of stress on you that you didn’t really know was there,” said Carolyn Debord, a social studies teacher at South Charleston Middle School. She is also the leader of the TeacherWISE programming at SCMS. “So mentally, physically that takes a toll on you. And so, this program made you become aware, self-aware. We always look for those things in students, but we don’t necessarily look internally at what we need to work on.” 

Chandler said the TeacherWISE program has improved morale at her school, and she’s thankful they’ll be doing it again this school year.

“What we realized through sharing is that everybody was really in the same boat and facing the same challenges,” Chandler said. “They were exhausting themselves trying to reach our students. It was draining them. You know you can’t pour from an empty cup, and so we had to find strategies to help our teachers recharge while still giving our students everything they needed.”

She is hoping teachers working on themselves will set a good example for the young people in their classrooms as the situation in the nation’s schools shines a light on a problem that expands far beyond education. Students staff and family in Kanawha County can find more mental health resources through Kanawha County Schools’ website.

“Mental health is not a bad thing. It is ok to say ‘I need help.’ That is the stigma that we need to remove off of mental health,” Chandler said. “People say ‘I’ve got mental health issues,’ ok, ‘how can we help you?’ Not ‘oh, we need to put you in the corner and ostracize you.’ And we definitely need more mental health facilities for our students too.”  

Marshall University, Concord University and West Virginia University have grant dollars available to help fill the vacant mental health positions in the state’s schools. They offer tuition assistance and stipends to help encourage college students to pursue that field and work in the Mountain State after graduation. The state is also part of a regional “Think Tank” working to address the staffing shortages.