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Mental health challenges significant among county and state youth, survey says

Glade Run Lutheran Services in Zelienople, which provides mental health services in the region, has been hit by staffing shortages, though it was also able to expand programs and care during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Maggie Caesar, vice president of clinical services at Glade Run.

At least 1 in 10 students in Butler County across grades six, eight, 10 and 12 seriously considered suicide in the past year, according to results released from the 2021 Pennsylvania Youth Survey, a survey administered across the state to assess student substance abuse and behavior.

According to the survey, in Butler County, 13.3% of sixth-graders, 15.4% of eighth-graders, 19.0% of 10th-graders and 17.5% of 12th-graders seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year.

Those responding to the survey — 27.6% of sixth-graders, 29.5% of eighth-graders, 29.6% of 10th-graders, and 33.6% of 12th-graders in Butler County — reported feeling so sad or hopeless almost every day for two weeks or more in a row that they stopped doing usual activities. In the county, 5.5% of sixth-graders, 8.7% of eighth-graders, 9.3% of 10th-graders and 9.5% of 12th-graders reported having attempted suicide one or more times in the past year.

The numbers are largely within a few percentage points of the state totals for the survey. At the state level, 7.8% of sixth-graders, 11.2% of eighth-graders, 12.2% of 10th-graders and 12.2% of 12th-graders reported having attempted suicide one or more times.

The statistics reflect the alarming level to which mental health struggles are a problem for young people, but have not jumped or changed significantly with the advent of the pandemic, said Brandon Savochka, Butler County Human Services director and mental health administrator.

“The numbers, while they’re still concerning, there hasn’t been a whole bunch of change over the past 10 years,” Savochka said. “I think in the next (survey) report we may see more, because I don’t think we’ve really gotten the whole impact of (COVID-19) yet.”

Numbers have steadily climbed over the past several survey years, but there hasn’t been a skyrocketing jump in state or county levels. For some questions, the percentages, while already large, have gone down slightly over the years. In 2017, 40.4% of Butler County students surveyed reported feeling depressed or sad most days in the past 12 months. In 2019, the percentage was 39.9%; in 2021, the most recent year of the survey, the percentage was 37.7%.

“I would say the numbers are alarming regardless,” Savochka said. “To look at that from a mental health or a parent perspective, those numbers are concerning, but we are not seeing a statistically significant impact as of yet due to COVID.”

Staffing challenges

In the county, Savochka said, a major problem facing young people with mental health struggles is the difficultly of accessing care.

“We have enough providers, but the problem is, our providers are having a very difficult time getting people to provide the services,” he said. “(There are) staffing issues around therapists, staffing issues around people providing intensive behavioral health services, (and) therapists who are doing outpatient work. It’s getting toward potentially a crisis level, so that’s really what we are keeping an eye on and working with providers and working with the state on trying to find ways to get more people into the field.”

Mental health providers are not very highly paid, he said, and their work is intense. Increasing the number of therapists in the field will take time, he added.

“There are no quick solutions to it, but it starts at the front end of the individuals that are in college,” he said. “If we find a solution and get to appropriate wages, getting more people interested in these careers, you’re still looking at four or five years before you see a significant uptick (in available providers).”

Maggie Caesar, who is vice president of clinical services at Glade Run Lutheran Services in Zelienople, as well as a licensed clinical social worker, said staffing shortages have made it harder for patients who are in crisis situations. Wait times at emergency rooms are longer, she said, and patients are sometimes sent home from the hospital when they would otherwise have been kept overnight in past years.

“I think we are in the middle of a crisis, but I think it could get worse if we don’t funnel some money toward services,” she said. “Therapists are taking on the role of a crisis worker a lot more. They might be doing active suicide assessments, getting the families linked to higher levels of care, making sure they follow through with the hospital. The crisis people are going to assess and determine what is the next step for this person.

“I do think the crisis workers are overwhelmed — they are just getting more and more referrals, so sometimes the response time hasn’t been as quick as it has in previous years.”

Challenges for younger children

In recent years, Caesar said, younger and younger children have been voicing problems with mental health.

“Younger kids are starting to come forward with suicidality. Usually, when I started my career 20 years ago, we were concerned about 16-, 17-, 18-year-olds, but now, we are assessing third-graders,” she said. “With the younger population, sometimes they just don’t have the words to express frustration, so they might say something like ‘This math test is so hard I’m going to kill myself,’ or just are overwhelmed with the day-to-day expectations.”

She recommended asking open-ended questions to try to get to the heart of the issue, and emphasized that parents and caregivers should take their children seriously if they hear them talking about mental health problems or suicide.

“Those kids are still going to need help, so you don’t want to gloss over anyone who expresses that deep level of dissatisfaction or frustration,” she said.

Glade Run Lutheran Services has been hit by staffing shortages, though it was also able to expand programs and care during the pandemic, she said.

“I think we’ve done better here than some other agencies,” Caesar said. “We are actually growing and we actually expanded programming during COVID and hired. Trying to get enough staff to meet the needs of the community has been overwhelming, and the needs are just growing and growing. They're definitely not shrinking.”

There has been progress in recent years when it comes to destigmatizing the discussion of mental health, Savochka said.

“Social media — for all the negatives that come with social media — our kids are influenced by it, and there’s been a lot of social media support around reaching out for health that has made it more common and more acceptable for kids to talk about mental health,” he said. “It’s become a safer topic for them, which is a good thing.”