‘Grief is huge’ — Losses fuel student mental health needs in Colorado, Roaring Fork valleys
Grief, loss fueling student mental health needs in Colorado, Roaring Fork valleys
Mental health workers in school districts across the Colorado and Roaring Fork valleys say it is unprecedented. Failing grades, outbursts and suicidal ideation stoked by things like the COVID-19 pandemic were commonplace in the 2021-22 school year to a level never before experienced.
The good news is that Re-2 is already working to boost the resources available for students and families through the recently opened Family Resource Center, Center Coordinator Amanda Vaughn said.
63% of the 148 student referrals were exclusively for mental health services since it opened in August 2021. Garfield Re-2’s family resource center offers academic, mental health and home-life support services for students and adults.
“Our middle schools ranked the highest with referred students needing the most mental health support,” Vaughn said. “Twenty of those referrals of that 148 were referrals that came to me from the Aspen Hope Center.”
Referrals stem from a variety of reasons, Vaughn said. In addition to stress brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, more and more Garfield Re-2 students are reporting greater issues with things like domestic abuse, food insecurity, homelessness, addiction, grief and loss.
This past spring and winter was especially notable for grief and loss. Vaughn noted at least 12 children to young adults associated with local districts have tragically died since 2022 started. This includes accidents, student suicides and even two homicide cases — one in Rifle, one in Glenwood Springs.
“Our community is healing,” Vaughn said. “Unfortunately, grief is huge.”
Coal Ridge High School Counselor Michelle Zinser, an Re-2 counselor of five years, said addressing these concerns on a daily basis “ebbs and flows.”
“I will say this year, particularly, has been extraordinary,” she said. “Just high, high needs. I really haven’t seen anything like this before.”
But while Garfield Re-2 sees a greater need for mental health services, staffing gaps remain. To help address the need, Vaughn is proposing a game plan for the district to increase funding, offer more training and hire more counselors over the next three years.
There are currently 15 counselors across the Garfield Re-2 district, with an additional two bilingual family liaisons offered through the family resource center. Vaughn said there’s also another four bilingual parent liaisons within the district.
And while the American School Counselor Association recommends there be at least one counselor for every 250 students, sometimes that’s not the case, according to Rifle Middle School Counselor Lynnette Carlsgaard.
“I’m one counselor for 620,” she said.
‘A TON OF LOSS’
It’s hard to quantify the impact of a loss on a community, or of how kids navigate the death of a friend or classmate.
But Allison Daily, the director of the nonprofit Pathfinders that provides support for people navigating grief, loss and chronic illness, does have a measure of the extra support.
This year, Pathfinders spent 30% more than budgeted on grief resources for youth, Daily said. The funding helps with ”support for counselors coming to the schools and working with kids, both in groups and individually.”
That support comes at a time when there has been “a ton of loss down in the Glenwood to Parachute area” — for kids as much as adults, and in some ways even more so for youth because of the impacts of learning and communicating online, according to Daily.
“These kids, they’re already more vulnerable, and so then you add a huge loss on to that, and they don’t have the same resiliency that they had before,” Daily said. “So part of what our counselors have been trying to do is to not only address the fear and the sadness, and all of the things that go along with the loss, but then also, during COVID, as well, we really worked on resiliency skills.”
Coping skills and resiliency can different depending on the age group, Daily said.
Younger students tend to be more receptive to concepts that are “a little bit more alternative” — like using a ball and practicing breathing techniques.
With older students in middle school and high school, the process focuses more on talk therapy, patience and building trust.
“Mostly, they just needed to feel and to have somebody witness them, and they needed to be able to talk through the questions they had around the losses, and to be able to have somebody witness that and to let them know that they weren’t crazy,” Daily said.
The questions often revolve around the “how” and the “why” as young people navigate the landscape of grief over unexpected violence or tragedy: “Why did bad things happen to good people?” Daily said.
Adults can help kids work their way through those questions with some reasoning and support, but it’s also important to focus on validation and listening, Daily said.
“I think we, as adults, want so much to just have everything be okay for someone when they’re grieving, and I feel like part of what we need to do is to let it not be okay for a while, and to be able to sit in that not okayness,” Daily said.
High school students within the Roaring Fork School District are experiencing the same levels of mental health needs now than pre-COVID-19 pandemic, a counselor said.
“What we were seeing was that a lot of the risk factors around violence, bullying, sexual activity, drug and alcohol use, all of that has gone down since 2019,” Anna Cole, Roaring Fork Chief of Student and Family Services, explained. “What’s gone up is screen time, and what’s gone up is depression, anxiety and thoughts of suicide.”
“They’re not doing more drugs or not drinking more alcohol,” she said. “But they are not happy, they are not relaxed.”
The Healthy Kids Colorado Survey, an anonymous study conducted through the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, shows about a 6.1% increase in the percentage of students who felt so sad or hopeless almost every day for two weeks or more in a row for the past 12 months that they stopped doing some usual activities between 2019 and 2021. The stats come from Region 12, which includes Garfield and Pitkin counties.
Parent behavior also plays a factor in the student behavior according to crisis data, Cole said. One of the big things the district is looking at is how to better support adults.
“If we can’t address the mental health needs of the adults in kids’ lives, we’re not going to be able to help kids,” she said. “The adults in their lives — their parents, their teachers — are stressed because of the impacts of the pandemic.”
There are a number of ways Roaring Fork currently addresses and supports mental well-being within the district. Cole said each school hosts a class called “crew,” which fosters relationships and belonging.
Meanwhile, there is a counselor for every school, with more in the high school, while the district has its own family resource center.
Roaring Fork also deploys bilingual family liaisons in every school, which connect students to outside mental health providers like Aspen Hope and Mountain Family Health Centers.
Despite the numbers, Cole said there’s still a need for more bilingual counselors for the district.
“The big things we’re working on is, we need, as a community, to create more pathways for bilingual, bicultural, mental health providers. We really have a gap there,” she said. “We really have a gap just in providers in general.”
Pathfinders is hosting a free grief and loss group for students on Wednesdays this summer both in person and online. The group began June 8, and sessions are offered at two times: for middle schoolers who have finished sixth through eighth grade from noon to 1 p.m. and for high schoolers who have finished ninth through 12th grade from 6-7 p.m.
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