Summit school health providers worry about students’ mental health as schools go online |

Summit school health providers worry about students’ mental health as schools go online

Summit school health providers worry about students’ mental health as schools go online

A sign pictured May 8 outside Summit High School in Breckenridge reminds students they are loved. With Summit School District students’ return to online learning, school behavioral health specialists worry how it will affect their mental health.

KEYSTONE — As the Summit School District prepares for all online instruction, adults are focusing their attention on the health and well-being of the students.

Statewide data suggests that kids’ mental and physical health do well when they’re in school. According to Healthy Kids Colorado Survey data, Summit High School and Summit Middle School students are on par with the rest of the state when it comes to their mental and physical health.

The survey is given to students every other year. In 2019, both high school and middle school students reported lower than average rates of feelings of hopelessness, thoughts of suicide and actual suicide attempts, according to the data.

At Summit High School, 28.8% of students reported having felt sad or hopeless for two or more weeks in a row, which is just below the 34.7% of students who reported those feelings statewide. Only 3.8% of students reported attempting suicide in the year before the survey, which is also below the 7.6% state average and the 6.4% average for the region, which includes Eagle, Garfield, Grand, Pitkin and Summit counties.

School behavioral health counselors say the data suggests efforts to reduce stigma and improve access to resources have been working.

“Just between the school-based health services and then the robust counseling services in the school system … there is a real conscious effort to be screening kids and also talking openly about mental health,” said Gemma Taylor, a behavioral health supervisor within the Summit Community Care Clinic’s school-based health centers.

However, all of that work wasn’t preparing students for a pandemic, and there’s no doubt that the shutdown in March was difficult on the mental health of Summit County’s kids.

“As a school, we worry about students feeling more isolated,” said Elizabeth Edgar, a mental and physical health coordinator with the district. “We’re concerned about the toll that it’s taking on teenagers, who are hardwired to be with other kids.”

School professionals also have some concern about substance usage among teenagers in the county. According to the survey data, Summit High School students reported higher than average use of marijuana, alcohol and electronic cigarettes.

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The biggest gap between state and Summit County data in the 2019 survey was in alcohol use. According to the survey, 42.2% of Summit High School students reported drinking alcohol in the past 30 days, while the average for the state was just 29.6% and the average for the region was 33.9%.

Edgar said the higher rates of substance use among Summit County teens is a result of the resort community.

“We live in a resort community, where people come here to use because they’re on vacation,” she said. “So there’s probably more of a laxed attitude towards usage.”

Both the care clinic and the district have been working to prevent the use of substances among students. Taylor said the clinic has been using state grants to help educate providers on how to talk to youth and families about substance use.

“We really have been very cognizant of this as an organization and doing a huge effort to be destigmatizing these conversations and to normalizing how we’re supporting youth and talking to them about the use of substances in their own self care,” Taylor said.

It remains to be seen how the pandemic and closing of schools will ultimately affect teenagers’ substance use. However, Eleanor Bruin, the chief behavioral health officer at the care clinic, said that she has seen increased dependency on substances among adults since the beginning of the pandemic.

“From even adult clients that I’ve interacted with, substance use is going up and it’s on the rise just in terms of coping,” she said. “This is such a stressful time and that’s what people are using to cope.”

Although both the care clinic school-based health center providers and district officials are keeping mental and behavioral health at the top of mind, there is no doubt that students perform better and are happier when they’re physically in school.

“For a lot of kids, school provides safety, security and routine,” Edgar said. “The social piece, that relationship piece, is really imperative to academic learning.”

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