Seattle Times Reports on Upcoming Increase of Mental Health Programs for King County
Bellevue and other King County school-based clinics getting a boost to confront student mental health
Originally published May 25, 2018 at 3:35 pm Updated May 25, 2018 at 5:26 pm
Amid concerns over the number of kids attempting to take their own lives and the intensity of their mental health needs, King County will run mental-health screening programs for up to 35,000 students at more than 40 middle schools starting next fall.
In the past three weeks, three students – at least one of them a middle-schooler – have died by suicide on the Eastside, and mental health workers say the apparent spike is emblematic of a growing national trend that may be best confronted through schools.
Both the number of kids attempting to take their own lives and the intensity of their mental health needs have been increasing across the region for the past decade, said David Downing, head of Youth Eastside Services. But in the Bellevue and Lake Washington districts he has noted a particular surge.
Last fall, Bellevue educators had written 56 suicide-prevention plans for students who’d expressed thoughts of killing themselves, in addition to nine students who were hospitalized after attempts and one death by suicide – all during of the first month of class.
Data from the 2016 Health Youth Survey show that, statewide, one in 10 high school sophomores has attempted to commit suicide.
“It’s really a significant change we’re seeing,” said Downing. “These are kids who may look ok – be doing ok in school and socially connected – but really, they are not.”
To get a better handle on kids’ inner lives and intervene before they take destructive action, King County will run mental-health screening programs for up to 35,000 students at more than 40 middle schools starting next fall. The aim is to catch students who don’t appear obviously troubled. The screenings will be funded with $12.6 million from the Best Starts for Kids and the Mental Illness and Drug Dependency levies.
Highland Middle School in Bellevue, with 533 students, will be one of those sites and already has a full-time behavioral health counselor on staff. Sarah Burdell meets with about 18 students for weekly session in her office, where the cozy leather seats are piled with stuffed animals. Kids who need more intensive help get referred to outside agencies, she said.
Many of Burdell’s patients are newcomers to the United States, grappling less with depression than a profound sense of displacement.
“I’m seeing a lot of kids dealing with missing their extended families, or having difficulty not worrying about them and focusing on schoolwork,” she said. But those students, who have come by and actually knocked on her door, have rosier prognoses than the ones who slouch through hallways, their heads down, eyes averted.
“They’re the kids I really need to get in front of,” Burdell said.
Her work is part of a three-plank battery of health interventions – dental, medical and behavioral – now hosted at the Highland Middle School clinic. Since January, when it opened, 23 students have stopped in for 202 visits ranging from simple immunizations to providing birth control or mental health counseling, said Sara Rigel, who directs school partnerships for King County Public Health.
Next school year, she expects the clinic to treat about 15 students daily.
The effort to bring health services to kids – rather than expecting them to go the traditional route of outside appointments – is part of a growing national trend.