On June 3rd, the Citizens Research Council hosted a virtual panel discussion to discuss youth mental health with Grand Rapids area stakeholders.
To begin, I presented soon-to-be-published research describing child and adolescent behavioral health trends in Michigan. While the coronavirus pandemic has certainly introduced unique mental health challenges for people in Michigan (and around the globe), this has occurred on top of a long-growing wave of youth depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and suicide.
I described a variety of policies and interventions to support youth mental health, focusing predominantly on school-based health. Student success and achievement is inexorably linked to health, and problems that manifest in childhood often follow people into adulthood if left unaddressed. Schools, as settings for intellectual and social development, are uniquely situated to promote students’ health and well-being, and to connect students and their families to community support and services.
Three distinguished panelists offered remarks in response to the newly presented research, and then engaged in a discussion of core issues affecting youth mental health.
Christy Buck, Executive Director of the Mental Health Foundation of West Michigan, noted that the pending report is easy to understand and makes a strong case for needed changes. She emphasized that getting students involved is a big piece of the pie for mental health education and suicide prevention.
Ron Koehler, Superintendent of Kent Intermediate School District, thanked the Research Council for shining a light on the issue of youth mental health, as well as helping people to better understand the challenges schools face. He said that it is a moral imperative for school administrators to understand the challenges students face, and to help students overcome them so that they graduate and progress to a college degree or career credential. Mr. Koehler said that it is essential for every educator to understand student mental health challenges and have strategies to address them so that every student feels welcome and engaged in the classroom.
Kevin Stotts, President of Talent 2025, said he was impressed by the forthcoming report that very plainly lays out the magnitude of the problem Michigan is facing. He noted that identification and treatment of youth mental health issues is extremely important from a workforce development perspective and is important for the wellbeing of the entire community.
Ms. Buck discussed the importance of understanding adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), and the value of teachers and other school personnel understanding ACEs as children progress through their education so that they can provide needed support and foster resilience in these children.
Mr. Koehler described how successful school-based health centers have been in Kent County, and expressed his expectation that more schools would use incoming federal and state dollars to expand school-based health services.
Mr. Stotts suggested that community coalitions including businesses and community groups may be important in increasing public awareness of the issues, as well as destigmatizing mental health issues.
In their closing remarks, each of the panelists emphasized the need to focus on youth mental health. There was broad agreement that there are fundamental changes that we as a society must make to support mental health in our communities, chief among them doing away with the belief that mental health challenges are a sign of weakness or personal failure; mental health issues are health issues that warrant care, treatment, and support from the whole community.