As the pandemic stretched into 2021, school counselors and nurses in Sublette County noticed more kids struggling with anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation. When one school district in the county conducted a mental health screening, it found more than a quarter of middle school and high school students considered self harm, according to Trisha Scott, coordinator for the Sublette Prevention Coalition, a group that focuses in part on suicide prevention.
Some of those kids wanted to go to therapy, but they also didn’t want to financially strain their parents, Scott said.
She’d recently been approached by a local motorcyclist group, the Boulder Roll, which had raised thousands of dollars in honor of a friend who died by suicide and was looking for a worthwhile recipient. Around the same time, two area Episcopal churches jointly received a $50,000 grant from the Foundation for the Episcopal Church in Wyoming, part of which they planned to use for mental health care.
Scott worked with the organizations, along with schools and local providers, to put together a mental health fund for kids, later expanding eligibility to adults. “We all know that it’s not enough to help the kid without helping the family,” Scott said.
Organizers worked to get the word out and remove barriers to entry. Now, if a county resident goes to Teton Behavior Therapy or High Country Behavioral Health, they simply have to say, “I’m using the mental health fund,” Scott said, and local providers send the bill to the Episcopol church. “There’s no application to use the funds,” Scott said. “There’s no ‘send us your W-2s’ or stuff like that.”
“We did that deliberately, because we figured there’s enough obstacles,” said Rev. Melinda Bobo, who helps administer the fund. “Plus, we know that needing mental health support is still not very acceptable, particularly in our Western culture.”
Mental health has long been a problem in Wyoming, where suicide is a leading cause of preventable death, according to the Department of Health. When the pandemic hit, it exacerbated anxiety and depression across the country, experts say, and Wyoming kids haven’t been immune to trends, teachers and counselors report.
“We see a lot more anxiety presenting more in our students than in years past,” said Melissa Mitchell, a school counselor for Sublette County School District 9.
According to yearly reports from Safe2Tell, a Wyoming hotline for kids, teachers, or parents, “suicide threats” are routinely the top category of calls. Tips overall were down during COVID, partially, according to Safe2Tell, because peers or teachers weren’t around to call in on a student’s behalf.
Through grants and fundraising efforts, communities and school districts across the state are cobbling together programs that provide children, and in some cases adults, access to counseling and psychiatric care for free — along with other programs aimed to help residents navigate mental and emotional health challenges.
Successes in many other areas hinge upon mental health maintenance, said Krystal Crosby, the community mental health project coordinator for several school districts in Big Horn County and Park County 16.
“We know that if they’re occupied with trauma, or grief, or whatever mental health condition they have that they’re not going to be learning,” she said. “So if they can find the resources and develop the skills to address those things, we know that they’ll excel better in school and in other areas of their lives.”
“Mental health care kind of works the same way as health care. You catch it early, you work on it, and then we hope that there’s not as many problems in the future,” said Kimberly Cossin, the outpatient mental health coordinator at the Central Wyoming Counseling Center.
The CWCC partnered with Natrona County schools many years ago to provide more intensive care, like licensed-therapist sessions, peer support specialists or case managers. More recent grants from the Department of Education allowed for expansion into smaller districts and schools — kids in Big Horn and Park counties can now meet with a CWCC clinician virtually.
“The goal of these programs has been to reach out to those communities that wouldn’t have the access that the larger communities do,” Cossin said.
Other schools are also offering kids in-house one-on-one counseling. “Instead of referring to them and going ‘you should go get some help,’ we can actually provide some of the help within the district,” said Michael Harris, director of student services in Fremont County District 1. To provide more specialized care for kids, his district partnered with Path Behavioral Health in Lander and hired a therapeutic counselor.
Similarly, schools in Big Piney provide online therapy to kids through a partnership with Teton Behavior Therapy, according to Melissa Mitchell, the school social worker for her district.
Prior to the program, getting a student to a therapy appointment required an 80-mile round trip to neighboring Pinedale. With federal grant money, the district set up a telehealth program, allowing about 15 kids to take a moment during the school day to sit in an empty school office, log in to a computer and talk with a therapist.
“We live in an area where there are limited resources outside the community,” Mitchell said. “And so we just started exploring options to get students the services they needed.”
Telehealth does have its drawbacks, especially when it comes to engaging with elementary-age children. “There is a way that it can be done virtually, but really being in the room with a kiddo with their parents is definitely best practice,” said Sarah Caldwell, Wyoming clinical director for Teton Behavior Health.
Therapists at Teton Behavior Health have come up with workarounds, utilizing digital whiteboards that allow the child to draw their emotions, or having an aid sit with the patient in-person to help out.
Social and emotional learning
Schools across Wyoming are also implementing “social emotional learning,” a framework for approaching education dating back to the mid-1990s. Fremont County District 1 and Platte County District 1, for example, have implemented “social emotional learning” skills courses, which they’ve been enhancing to help students with higher levels of anxiety and depression or that struggle to express themselves.
At Wheatland Middle School, social emotional learning is a class just like physical education or math, Principal Micah Becker said.
Harris of Fremont County explains social emotional learning as “addressing how to deal with thoughts and emotions in a constructive way.
“I think it’s good for all kids to try to put words around something that we don’t often teach them explicitly,” Harris said. The hope is that helping kids better manage their emotions will allow them to better excel at school, and in life more generally.
Research backs up that idea. One study in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology examining the impacts of a multiyear social-emotional learning program concluded the approach could meaningfully improve rates of aggression, social competence and academic engagement in elementary schools. In order for those programs to truly work, studies suggest, teachers must also be dedicated to implementation.
Social emotional learning courses have been offered in Platte County School District 1 for years, said Superintendent Cory Dziowgo. The courses have been helpful as students navigate a post-pandemic world, so the district expanded the programs.
At Wheatland Middle School, the latest social emotional learning program aims to help kids navigate everything from managing moods to healthy relationships. Kara Sandlian, a counselor at the middle school, said programs aim to make opening up to teachers more comfortable — so that kids can talk to their teachers about everything from troubling relationships at home to desires for a non-traditional career path.
Long-term solutions needed
More federal grants and fundraising efforts are helping reach more struggling kids, but needs are also growing, educators say.
“We’re full to the brim with students, we’re looking at caseloads of 30 to 50 students per clinician,” Cossin with the Central Wyoming Counseling Center said. In Natrona County, there’s been an increase in higher-risk families with trauma, substance abuse and suicide issues, Cossin said.
Many of the federal grant and fundraising dollars are finite, although certain appropriations from the American Rescue Plan Act funding, like the $2 million dollars set aside for rural telehealth pilot projects, could potentially fill gaps.
Long-term solutions require addressing the dearth of childhood specialists and providing more stable funding for families and kids to get mental health care, according to Dr. Cynthia Hartung, director of the Psychology Center for Training in Assessment, Treatment, and Clinical Research at the University of Wyoming.
The state not only has a shortage of psychiatric providers, but providers trained in more specific evidence-based treatments, she said, like behavioral parent training for ADHD. Insurance funding is also an issue.
“Mental health is not treated the same as physical health by insurance companies,” Hartung said. “We really need Medicaid expansion in order to be able to better serve families with mental health problems.”
For now, kids in rural communities like Big Piney have the chance to talk with a therapist. Some school districts also seem to be changing the way they view student mental health and its relationship to academics.
“We can’t count on a kid to advocate for themselves,” Harris said. “They don’t even know how to put words to what they’re experiencing.”
Educators hope that if, at the very least, they can help kids put words to those experiences, those kids can find a way to better navigate the world of growing up.
This story was updated to include the source of St. Hubert the Hunter’s and St. Andrew’s in the Pines’s grants -Ed.