Kids reporting depression, suicidal thoughts, say school counselors

Published 3:40 pm Wednesday, October 6, 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a large negative effect on student mental health, school counselors told members of the General Assembly’s Interim Joint Education Committee on Tuesday.

Linda Tyree, Crisis Response director for the Green River Regional Education Cooperative, told the panel that up until recently, they would respond to the death or serious injury of a student or staff member, but their role has changed since the pandemic.

“We have been called in for times of anxiety, depression, thoughts of suicide,” she said. “We know that during this pandemic we’ve had an increase in student mental health concerns with transitioning to remote learning. We know there was a lot of exposure to trauma, stress, even exposure to pornography when they’re learning online. All these things just compound the problems of adolescence.”

Amy Riley, a school counselor at Mercer County Middle School, gave a startling statistic: “A recent CDC report found that 25% of respondents between the ages of 18 and 24, had contemplated suicide within the past 30 days.”

Riley said she found that to be the case at her school. “Prior to the COVID pandemic, there were students at my school who suffered from mental illness. However, the sheer frequency and intensity of those affected has increased exponentially since the pandemic. I’m sad to report that, like the national statistic, the number of suicide threats at my own school has skyrocketed since COVID.”

Marsha Duncan, a 26-year educator who is a social and emotional learning specialist with LaRue County schools had a similar story.

“Our Larue County students are struggling with depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts, now more than ever,” she testified. “During the last two years, I’ve done risk assessments on students as young as third grade. A first for me in all my years in education.”

Duncan said the result of the major issues facing students, “Our teachers and staff feel overwhelmed and sometimes ill-equipped to help them. When our kids are hurting, we hurt too. So many of our school staff members are in a state of distress themselves, wanting to help but not really knowing how.”

Rep. Regina Huff, R-Williamsburg, and co-chair of the committee, who is a special education teacher herself, agreed with the counselors. “This is real. I think that sometimes we get caught with the fact they are children, and how could they be having these experiences?”

The trio who appeared before the committee agreed that more money should go to hire additional counselors and other mental health experts, in order to help the students cope.