CASPER — People in school districts across Wyoming “overwhelmingly” emphasized that addressing mental health among students and staff is crucial to school safety, according to a memo from Wyoming Department of Education Deputy Superintendent of Public Instruction Chad Auer.
“I think mental health is a huge component of safe schools,” Chad Blakely, a Cheyenne-based teacher, said. “It’s the basis of everything.”
The Wyoming Department of Education said that it would host school safety talks across the state following the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, that killed 19 kids and two adults in May.
“School safety is at the top of everyone’s mind now, and it has been for many years,” Auer said in a statement announcing the talks. “The modern reality is we, as educators and communities, must prepare for the possibility that evil might show up at our local school on any given day.”
Auer hosted the talks over the summer. The Wyoming Department of Education shared his update on the talks Monday.
Mental health has been a challenge across the board in Wyoming.
The state has the highest suicide rate in the nation, according to 2020 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And the pandemic has made the situation even more challenging; suspected suicide attempts among adolescents across the country went up 31% in 2020 compared with the previous year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Especially adolescents in middle school and high school, over the years, we’re continuing to see a larger number suffering from mental health issues,” said Andi Sommerville, executive director of the Wyoming Association of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Centers.
Student behavior has been more of an issue during the pandemic, too; Natrona County School District reported 17,000 recorded instances of bad student behavior district-wide this past school year, up from 12,000 instances in the 2018 school year.
Expulsions also increased from 37 in the 2018 school year to 48 this past year.
Since the pandemic, teachers have observed more incidents of aggression, according to a joint report from the University of Wyoming and the Wyoming Education Association.
“When the kids came back to school after lockdown and isolation, it was like they forgot how to act in civilized society,” Blakely said. “There were a lot more fights, turning in homework seemed more challenging.”
Not all behavioral problems among students are necessarily related to mental health, but it’s a contributing factor, Somerville said.
In a state that’s so rural, providing access to mental health resources isn’t easy; Auer said in his memo that some districts are trying to connect with local professionals to meet the mental health needs of students and staff.
But not all have access to such resources, and many of them reported a shortage of counselors, social workers and mental health professionals.
“It’s absolutely the case that school districts are caught up in the provider shortage right now,” Sommerville said.
Part of the problem may be that these professionals don’t get enough compensation; the Wyoming Education Association argues in a lawsuit it brought against the state earlier this month over school funding that school personnel – including counselors – aren’t paid enough to compete with surrounding states.
There has been a lot of discussion in Wyoming, particularly since the pandemic, around providing more mental health care via tele-health. That could be especially helpful for rural communities.
But Somerville said mental health care through tele-health should be balanced with in-person services, particularly for school-aged kids.
“We really need to look toward a longer-term plan that uses both tele-health and in-person services,” she said.
There are some potential solutions to address mental health in Wyoming schools that seem promising.
For example, the Wyoming Department of Education got two Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration grants to start Project AWARE (Advancing Wellness and Resiliency in Education) in 2021.
The program, which serves six Wyoming school districts right now, provides school-based mental health services that are meant to supplement existing mental health services in communities.
The project is showing positive outcomes so far; of the 380 kids who have used the program’s services so far, about 46.3% of them have reported higher levels of social connectedness, according to Dustin Brown, the project’s director.
It has helped reduce wait times for students in need of mental health services.
The program is also open to school staff, although there isn’t any data to show outcomes for staff who take advantage of the services.