The impact of the pandemic is still being seen on students’ mental health – The Durango Herald

Pediatricians, Durango School District 9-R, providing emotional well-being services

The Colorado Healthy Kids Survey, conducted by the Colorado Department of Health and Environment, shows that 37.9% of students in Southwest Colorado feel depressed. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

An increase in mental health inquiries among students in Durango School District 9-R and the greater community has prompted the school district and Southwest Pediatric Partners to offer more resources to students and families in need.

Data released by Pediatric Partners of the Southwest shows that 15% to 20% of visits to Durango’s student health centers are solely for mental health.

In 2022, Children’s Hospital Colorado reported a 23% year-over-year increase in the number of patients visiting the behavioral health unit.

Nationally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention conducted a survey that found 44 percent of teens reported feeling “sad and hopeless,” a 37 percent increase since before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Suicide was the #1 cause of death in the state for people ages 10 to 24 in 2020.

“I think COVID was a challenge because the kids were out of school and this is kind of their community,” said Cecil Fraley, CEO of Pediatric Partners of the Southwest.

Pediatric Partners of the Southwest is working with Durango School District 9-R to provide a school health center located at Durango High School. The center typically treats students within the school district, but also provides medical services to anyone between the ages of 1 and 21.

Pediatric Partners of the Southwest referred 74 patients to mental health support and counseling services in the first half of 2022.

School health centers now offer services such as sports screenings, basic lab tests and immunizations. But Fraley would like to see mental health screenings added to each visit. She said this would help medical professionals deal with mental health problems before they become more significant.

“Get their support early, that’s really the goal for us,” she said.

Fraley said some students self-refer to school health center services, while others may be referred by a counselor or family member. In addition to the increase in mental health cases related to the COVID-19 pandemic, she said there has been an overall increase in mental health visits over the past 15 years.

Kim Caruso, a pediatrician with Pediatric Partners of the Southwest, said the impact of COVID has led to poor academic performance and less structure in students’ lives, which has affected mental health.

It also forces students to spend more time online, which can have a negative impact on students’ mental health, she said, adding that the way students connect through social media can also have a negative impact on students’ mental health .

“The way people relate to each other has really changed fundamentally,” Caruso said. “Whether it’s TikTok, YouTube videos, or Facebook posts with a beautiful picture of the perfect vacation with the perfect family, it’s a standard that’s super artificial and not really attainable.”

She said this can lead to feelings of inadequacy, failure and fear of missing out.

Durango School District’s behavioral health team is seeing similar mental health impacts stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We have seen an increase in students accessing resources to support their mental health, and we have responded to this trend by increasing our services,” said Vanessa Giddings, executive director of Student Support Services at 9-R.

The district has seven employees who support the behavioral health team. The Behavioral Health Team provides professional development for staff, along with direct and indirect services to students as needed. Each school campus also has a provider team that includes a counselor, social worker, school psychologist, and behavioral interventionists.

Giddings said there are a variety of reasons students across the country seek help for their mental health, and it must focus on each student’s needs in order to succeed.

9-R has other social-emotional support resources such as Safe2Tell where students can anonymously report mental health issues they have about themselves or others. The district also provides a social-emotional curriculum for all grades that allows them to learn more about mental health.

“We have observed that the impact of COVID includes increased stress and anxiety for some of our students, similar to what has been recognized nationally,” Giddings said.

A Colorado Healthy Kids survey conducted by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment shows that 37.9 percent of students ages 15 to 18 feel sad or hopeless in Region 9, which includes La Plata counties, Archuleta, Dolores, Montezuma and San Juan.

The survey found that 17-year-old students were the most likely to say they were depressed at 42.1%.

“We believe that social-emotional health is like physical health. If you’re in pain, it’s hard to learn,” said 9-R spokeswoman Carla Sluis. “Teaching resilience and providing emotional support doesn’t take away from core learning—it adds to it and enhances it.”

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