Stein column: Are the kids all right? |

Stein column: Are the kids all right?

Rob Stein
Superintendent's Corner
Rob Stein

We’re all concerned about the kids right now.

According to the New York Times, teens are in a mental health crisis. Depression, self-harm and suicide are rising among American adolescents. Self reports of depression have increased 60% in the past two decades. Emergency room visits for self-harm have doubled. These trends predate the pandemic but have gotten worse.

At the same time, other indicators of risk have improved. Drinking, smoking, drug use and pregnancy have gone down.

Our local data paints a similar picture. While most risk factors have improved in recent years, there is a perception of crisis in our communities. According to the Healthy Kids Colorado Survey, most risky behaviors — drugs, alcohol, sexual activity, bullying — are all trending downward for our high school students.

However, depression and thoughts of suicide have increased.

According to the Teaching and Learning Conditions Colorado survey, teachers in the Roaring Fork Schools and across the state are extremely concerned about a decrease in student emotional well-being and an increase in social isolation, particularly since the pandemic. Lots of teachers are saying that students are more unruly and undisciplined, but formal disciplinary actions such as suspensions and expulsions have not gone up.

When you put it all together, kids are in most ways healthier now than in recent decades, or maybe ever, but they are struggling with mental angst — depression and anxiety — both brought on by and causing greater social isolation and an overwhelming sense of lack of control.

We do know that we can take action to address adolescent health crises. In recent years, a coordinated effort up and down the Roaring Fork Valley led to a set of municipal policies from Aspen to Glenwood Springs that contributed to a decrease in youth vaping and an increased understanding of its risks. An effort to make long-lasting reversible contraceptives free and accessible to Colorado youth cut teen pregnancies in half.

Let’s start with what we are doing in schools to address mental health. Because social isolation and alienation are root causes of mental health problems, Roaring Fork Schools have a deep commitment to supporting students’ belonging in school. Every student belongs to a crew, which provides each student a relationship with an adult at school, as well as a consistent and ongoing peer community. The crew model ensures that all students have an adult monitoring their academic and social well-being and sets the stage for the development of deeper relationships, which increases feelings of belonging.

Our schools are increasingly being seen as places where our rural community’s children and families can access mental and behavioral health support. Counselors in every school provide services for students through one-on-one counseling, mental health support groups, and prevention education. In the last few months, our community experienced an uncharacteristic number of tragic deaths of young people. Students and families turned to their schools for solace and mental health support.

Of course, it takes a village, and we collaborate deeply with the community. We partner with other agencies, such as Hope Center, to provide additional mental health counselors and resources in our schools and to provide crisis support if there is a concern that students are in crisis or if there is risk of harm to themselves or others. All three municipalities provide funding for these resources for all students within our district boundaries, regardless of which school they attend.

Mountain Family Health Centers operate school-based integrated health services, including behavioral health, in our high schools. Our Family Resource Center leads and participates in a number of collaborative teams with the counties, towns and early childhood councils to coordinate regional programs for our youth.

The well-being of students depends on the well-being of adults, so we attend to our families and staff as well. Full-time bilingual family liaisons in every school provide evidence-based family strengthening and case management services, connect families to community resources, and provide family coaching and other direct services. Especially in light of recent violent and traumatic events in the community, we have provided bilingual support programs for trauma and grief in partnership with the Hope Center. For our staff, we offer mental health benefits, host peer support groups and have a staff wellness champion in every school and department facilitating positive well-being opportunities.

There is still more we can be doing. We will be expanding our commitment to wellness by making social-emotional wellness a district priority next year to make sure every classroom is a safe, supportive place where all students belong. Our valley needs more bilingual mental health providers. Our community institutions should be doing more to provide out-of-school programming that is accessible to low-income children and affordable for families.

Our communities, agencies and nonprofits have shown an amazing capacity to work together to address problems such as vaping, teen pregnancy and the pandemic. If we continue to work together, and build on our collective assets, we should be able to reverse the mental health crisis confronting our children.

Rob Stein is superintendent of Roaring Fork District schools in Glenwood Springs, Carbondale and Basalt.

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