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More Kentucky youth are struggling with mental health. Are state lawmakers doing enough?

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Kentucky Student Voice Team
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The Kentucky Student Voice Team was founded in 2012 and works to include young people in the creation of policies and legislation.

Esha Bajwa was just a middle schooler when she started struggling with depression. She likens the condition to a bad knee ache that comes and goes. She doesn’t always know what triggers the pain or how bad it will get.

“There’s some moments where I walk on it, and I feel like I’m surviving. I’m doing great,” she said. “And then other times, it just hurts so bad that it consumes me.”

Bajwa remembers feeling guilty about her depression because she thought her parents faced worse challenges immigrating to America from Pakistan. So, she downplayed her struggles making friends at school and the stress she felt when her parents argued at home.

Her mental health hit a low in 2021, during her senior year at Fern Creek High School in Louisville. The pandemic had disrupted the last two years of her education and threatened her family’s stability. Her dad’s job laid him off, and his diabetes worsened. He spent several months in and out of hospitals.

Bajwa took on more household responsibilities like cooking and cleaning — all the while feeling more and more isolated from her classmates and weathering the challenges of remote learning.

“I was really trying to keep the household afloat,” she said. “I put so much pressure on myself to help my family out that I did not take care of myself.”

Bajwa, now 18, is one of more than 130,000 young Kentuckians who report wrestling with anxiety and depression, a likely underreported rate, according to the 2022 KIDS COUNT Data Book released by the Annie E. Casey Foundation last month. The data comes from the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services’ National Survey of Children’s Health.

At least 16% of Kentucky children ages 3 to 17 have depression or anxiety, the sixth highest rate in the nation, according to the foundation report. The rate has increased by nearly one-third since 2016.

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Esha Bajwa, 18, recently graduated from Fern Creek High School and is now attending the University of Louisville.

Youth of color and young people who identify as LGBTQ experience disproportionately high rates of anxiety and depression.

Most public health officials agree that the country is amidst a youth mental health crisis. Many young people suffered trauma and loss due to the pandemic. They also have to contend with poverty, hunger, violence and other risk factors that affect mental health.

“There are predicate factors,” said Terry Brooks, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates, a children’s advocacy organization. “I think sometimes we, as a Commonwealth, don’t want to draw the dots between poverty and mental health or between violence and mental health. But it’s all connected.”

The U.S. Surgeon General published an advisory in 2021 urging government officials to address the social and economic barriers that contribute to poor mental health for young people.

Kentucky has made some progress. The Kentucky General Assembly passed several bills related to youth mental health this year. One of the laws allows students to take mental health days off from school. Another emphasizes the need for more mental health professionals in schools.

Youth advocates still say state lawmakers could be doing more to help young people – and that they’ve made matters worse in some cases by passing several laws that could harm young people’s mental health, especially youth from marginalized backgrounds.

“We have regressive legislative measures that gathered steam last session — some took hold, and some didn’t,” Brooks said. “The results of those measures are only going to increase mental and behavioral health issues for kids.”

The intersection of policy and youth mental health

Having a safe and stable place to call home and consistent access to food and income is crucial for creating the conditions that support good mental health, according to the National Alliance on Mental Health. The organization says this means creating equitable government policies and eliminating discrimination.

House Bill 7, passed into Kentucky law earlier this year, added more requirements for people trying to access public benefits like unemployment and food assistance. Critics said the measure revealed “a bias against the poor,” claiming it created more barriers to support for the state’s most vulnerable residents. Supporters of the bill said the restrictions were necessary to prevent fraud and reduce dependency on public assistance. In May, KyCIR reported that the bill was heavily influenced by model legislation from the Foundation of Government Accountability, a conservative think tank based in Florida. The foundation has pushed for welfare restrictions in Kentucky for years. They did not respond to requests for comment.

House Bill 63 mandated that every K-12 school in Kentucky have a school resource officer (SRO) or develop a plan to hire one in an effort to prevent school shootings. But some argue that the presence of police in schools could cause harm, especially for students of color and those with disabilities, who are disciplined at disproportionately higher rates.

“It just goes to show how little they consider the intersectionality of mental health,” said Bajwa, who now serves on the Kentucky Student Voice Team, a group that aims to include youth voices in state policy and research. “You can’t say that you care about mental health if you’re also going to implement resource officers that are going to make students feel uncomfortable and punish them more severely.”

Some legislators disagree.

Republican State Rep. Kevin Bratcher, who is running for re-election in 2023, sponsored HB 63. He said he didn’t see why the presence of student resource officers would impact mental health.

“Having proper and ready security inside a school building should not be a burden to any child’s mental health,” he wrote in an email to KyCIR. “If it is, then it would be best to identify and treat such a problem before that child graduates into society, and then must deal with the issue as an adult, with adult consequences.”

Various research studies have found that youth are criminalized more often in schools with police officers, which can hurt academic achievement and land more students in the juvenile justice system.

KyCIR contacted 11 other lawmakers who sponsored the resource officer bill, but none responded to requests for comment.

Kentucky lawmakers also passed Senate Bill 83 this year, prohibiting transgender girls from participating in school sports that don’t align with their biological sex. Supporters of the bill said it wouldn’t be fair to allow biologically male students to participate in girls’ sports because they have physical advantages. But critics, including Gov. Andy Beshear, called the bill discriminatory and said it would deny transgender students access to educational opportunities comparable to their peers.

Joe Bargione, a licensed psychologist and lead trainer for the Bounce Coalition, says policies like that – and the public discourse around them – can harm students psychologically.

“The groups that have the highest rates of suicide or attempted suicides are our LGBTQ students,” he said. “It’s tough growing up for any child. But then, if I see that people in my community are trying to pass policies that devalue me as a child, that can have a truly negative effect.”

More than 23% of gay, lesbian and bisexual high school students attempted suicide in 2019 compared to 6% of heterosexual students, according to national data from the Kids Count Data Book.

Anxiety and depression rates are also disproportionately higher among children of color. In the U.S., 9% of high schoolers attempted suicide in 2019, but that rate was more than 25% for American Indian students, 12% for Black students and 13% for students who identify with two or more races.

Students speak up

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Kentucky Department of Education
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Charleigh Browning (left), a senior at Marion County High School, and other members of the Commissioner’s Student Advisory Council speak on student mental health at the Kentucky legislature’s Interim Joint Committee on Education meeting on Aug. 16. They were joined by Kentucky Lt. Gov. Jacqueline Coleman (middle), who cited data on student mental health.

Legislators have taken some important steps to protect youth mental health. Senate Bill 102 was passed this year, requiring schools to track the number of mental health professionals in their building to meet the recommended 250-to-1 ratio of students to counselors. However, the legislature did not include funding to help schools to hire more counselors.

Connor Flick, a recent high school graduate and another Kentucky Student Voice Team member, said the Commonwealth still has a long way to go.

“My mental health was never necessarily a priority,” said Flick, who graduated from Connor High School in Boone County this year. “The priority was always getting the work done and pushing yourself forward.”

Bajwa agreed. She said that she had little interaction with the counselor at her high school besides talks about colleges and a once-a-year suicide prevention video they played for the whole student body. She said she remembers filling out forms to request a visit with the mental health counselor, but no one ever followed up.

The Kentucky Department of Education’s student advisory council echoed these concerns with lawmakers at a legislative committee meeting in Frankfort last month. The council cited youth mental health summits and surveys conducted with young people across the state in the past few years to illustrate the mental health challenges that students were facing, including isolation, stress about the health of their families and concern about how they would pay bills.

They asked legislators to help provide more comprehensive suicide prevention, expand mental health resources and treatment in schools, provide more training and increase the number of excused mental health absences students can use.

Legislators at the meeting seemed receptive to their ideas and agreed that student mental health should be a priority. They also brought up concerns and questions about how to effectively implement the recommendations without overwhelming teachers and keeping students from taking advantage of mental health days.

Supporting schools

Bargione says access to mental health resources, trauma-informed education and crisis prevention training for students, educators and staff is one of the best ways to help kids.

But while school counselors, teachers and administrators can help catch mental health concerns early so issues can be adequately addressed, that doesn’t mean schools can do it all on their own.

“We’re putting so much on the plates of our educators,” Bargione said. “In addition to the mental health pieces, they still gotta to do reading, writing, math and critical thinking skills. So how do we make that all fit?”

Michelle Sircy, school counseling specialist at Jefferson County Public Schools, said there must be adequate systems to ensure school counselors can do what they are trained for.

While the Kentucky Department of Education recommends school counselors dedicate 60% of their time to counseling and direct student services, she said they often get pulled onto other duties such as supervising hallways and bus loading or coordinating standardized testing.

“If we have our only trained mental health professionals doing other things besides providing mental health counseling to students, we’re really doing a disservice to our students,” Sircy said.

Sircy said the state is headed in the right direction by focusing on hiring more mental health professionals. But she urged lawmakers to consider creating a requirement about how school counselors need to spend their time. She also thinks Kentucky should expand its suicide prevention efforts. Currently, state law requires students to receive one suicide prevention workshop a year for 6th through 12th grade.

“Sixth grade is way too late to start suicide prevention,” she said. “Our students are struggling with suicidal ideation at a much, much younger age. So, how can we be more proactive instead of reactive with students’ mental health?”

If you or a loved one struggle with mental health or have suicidal thoughts and would like emotional support, you can contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 — or 1-800-273-8255. Para Espanol haz clic aqui, o llame al número 988, o 1-888-628-9454.

Regional mental health resources: