Lawmakers discuss student mental health issues and entrepreneurial opportunities for Appalachians

FRANKFORT, Ky. (WTVQ / Press Release) – Children of all ages across the Commonwealth are facing a major mental health crisis.

Student mental health professionals testified before the Interim Joint Committee on Education today about what the Kentucky legislature can do to help students with mental illness and suicidal ideation.

Speakers proposed legislative solutions that include more mental health first aid training for teachers at all levels and more socio-emotional learning programs to prevent mental health problems before they start. A mental health workforce shortage is also a concern as well as a lack of funds to hire professionals in schools.

Linda Tyree, director of crisis response for the Green River Regional Educational Co-operative (GRREC), said the co-op is typically called into schools after the death or serious injury of a student or member of the staff. More recently, the GRREC has been approached to help students suffering from depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts.

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a nationwide mental health crisis, especially for students who have spent most of the last school year learning remotely, Tyree said.

“We know there was a lot of exposure to trauma, stress, family stress and even pornography when learning online,” Tyree said. These challenges, along with the normal problems of adolescence, have taken their toll, she added.

Amy Riley, a school counselor at Mercer County Schools, said her school was gravely suffering from the student mental health crisis.

“There were weeks last spring, shortly after virtual learning returned, that we were assessing two to three students a day for viable suicidal threats,” Riley said. “Many students had to be hospitalized or closely monitored. “

Riley told lawmakers she works with children between the ages of 8 and 10 and that before coming to testify, she did a suicide risk assessment on a 9-year-old.

“In my own building where we employ a school counselor, school social worker and school psychologist, there are days when the three of us go out of our way to meet the intense mental health needs of our 600+ students,” said Riley said.

Riley said Kentucky schools are in desperate need of more mental health professionals.

“This is my heartfelt plea that, when making critical funding decisions, you don’t overlook the mental health needs of Kentucky students,” said Riley. “All the money and all the resources spent on mental health needs in Kentucky schools are money that will have an infinite return on the investment. “

Marsha Duncan, a socio-emotional learning specialist for LaRue County Schools, said that for the past two years, she has performed risk assessments on children as young as third grade, which was a first for her for more than 20 years in public education.

“The needs are many, but the resources are few,” Duncan said, adding that a lack of people entering the field of mental health and a lack of funding for schools and communities to meet health needs. mental health is a major problem facing the Commonwealth.

Duncan said many students are grieving. Some mourn the loss of someone they knew to COVID-19 and others mourn the loss of fun activities and normalcy. Children are also afraid of getting sick or losing someone they love, she added, and adults in schools also suffer from mental health issues.

After the testimony, committee co-chair, Rep. Regina Huff, R-Williamsburg, asked if the speakers had statistics on the youth suicide rate in Kentucky.

Comparing a three-month period last year to the same period in 2019, the youth suicide rate rose 57%, Tyree said. Last Thanksgiving, GRREC helped a school district following the suicide of an 11-year-old child. Tyree said it was the youngest suicide death she had seen.

Representative Shane Baker, R-Somerset, asked what parents, educators and community members can do about prevention.

Riley responded that one thing parents can do is get heavily involved in socio-emotional learning at their child’s school and advocate for a strong first-class socio-emotional learning program. level.

Tyree agreed, adding that first-level socio-emotional learning means that every kindergarten and first grade student participates in classes on how to express feelings, regulate feelings, and develop other skills. socio-emotional.

Although lawmakers cannot take legislative action on this issue until 2022, Representative Tina Bojanowski, D-Louisville, who is also an elementary special education teacher, said she would strongly support additional funding for counselors. in mental health in schools.

Rep. James Tipton, R-Taylorsville, said he will contact university presidents about their programs and recruitment for mental health professionals.

Later during the committee meeting, two Kentucky business owners expressed their vision of providing opportunities for budding Appalachian entrepreneurs.

Kyle Wilson, CEO of Boom Beans, and Nick Such, Executive Director of Awesome Inc. took to state lawmakers to describe a new program that would help launch start-ups for high school students.

The program would involve a social network and investment platform for networking and plans to guide young entrepreneurs. The nonprofit hopes that this will lead to the growth of more Appalachian businesses in the state.

“I think really giving these kids a place at the table and a conversation and really a network that starts in the Appalachians but can grow statewide is a big part of what the success of this program looks like. Boom Beans, ”Such said.

Some lawmakers applauded the new path to individual success while others feared the funding might look more like a loan.

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