Educators, mental health professionals taking holistic approach to student mental health issues

John McKinney (right) recently shared efforts by the Shawnee Mission School District at a #ZeroReasonsWhy event to provide mental health resources for students. File photo.

Students in Johnson County are coming to school more stressed out and anxious than ever, say educators and health officials, prompting local groups to seek out new ways to address student mental health.

Tim DeWeese, director of Johnson County Mental Health, said the number of students reporting mental health issues have been increasing for two reasons: Students are facing more mental health issues, but the community is also more open in talking about mental wellness in the first place.

“We’re getting better data, and we’re collecting data better,” DeWeese said. “But I also think there are contributing factors that impact young people today that haven’t impacted them in the past. I think you add all of these things together, and that’s why.”

An October 2018 report from by the American Psychological Association called attention to the stressors reported by members of Generation Z. Gun violence and sexual harassment are identified in the survey as “significant stressors” for today’s students, who are also the generation most likely to report poor mental health.

Here are a few other readily identifiable stressors facing students in Johnson County, as listed by Shawnee Mission School District educators and Johnson County Mental Health:

  • Social media, devices and technology, which could act as platforms for bullying
  • Academic and athletic pressures on students by their parents
  • Overscheduling of both student activities and work obligations of parents
  • Childhood trauma within families and/or their environment
  • Media exposure to violence (especially gun violence) and the effects of climate change
  • Social acceptance of underage drinking and marijuana use
  • Addiction to vape and e-cigarette tobacco products
  • Poverty and homelessness among some Shawnee Mission families

DeWeese said students may be affected by a combination of all of these stressors, making mental health challenging but vital to address.

Tim DeWeese, director of the Johnson County Mental Health Center.

“While I think we have an amazing community in Johnson County, we put a tremendous amount of pressure on young people,” DeWeese said. “We have to have the best schools, the best scores, the best parks, the best hospitals. We have to be the best. And I think we forget about telling young people to do their best versus being the best. In my mind, there’s a big difference.”

Educators in the Shawnee Mission School District and staff at the Johnson County Mental Health Center see mental health issues affecting students from all demographics, regardless of age, race, socioeconomic status or other external factors.

“We have 5 year olds coming in with chronic stress already,” said Tracie Chauvin, a social worker in Shawnee Mission elementary schools. “They’re overscheduled…and so it’s showing up as anxiety or chronic stress symptoms, which affects their health. We have fifth and sixth graders who are experiencing a lot of stress, anxiety, depression.”

Students are also reporting that they feel lonely, even though many of them are connected via social media.

“I really believe that much of our current stress levels are directly related to social media,” said Shelby Rebeck, director of health services at the Shawnee Mission School District.

Concerted efforts to address student mental health

When students talk with one another, they realize they share similar experiences with these common stressors. And they’re helping one another.

The #ZeroReasonsWhy Teen Council, a student-led campaign established by the school districts in the county and now organized by Johnson County Mental Health, is expanding its focus from teen suicide prevention to a more holistic approach to teen mental wellness. Teens involved in the campaign are starting conversations early on mental wellness, with the ultimate goal of treating students’ mental health as equal to their physical health.

External factors like a good night’s sleep, a healthy diet and outdoor play are critical to improving both physical and mental health in students.

Research backs this up. John McKinney, director of family and student services at the Shawnee Mission School District said students who report higher social and emotional competencies have higher reading and math scores, lower rates of suspension and absenteeism, and are less likely to be at risk for dropping out, and more likely to graduate on time. They also report less stress and burnout.

Concerted efforts to address student mental health involve parents in a variety of ways. Chauvin said she’s seen parents, teachers and students ask for more resources on mental health — and in response, the school district has been able to provide those resources “at a higher level than we’ve ever been able to provide it before.”

The Shawnee Mission district has organized educational events like “LGBTQ and You,” which focused on the types of stressful experiences gay and transgender students can face at school and at home. And two weeks ago, USD 232 parents attended a live screening of the 2017 documentary “Angst,” which addresses anxiety in students.

The Shawnee Mission School District has also started quantifying social and emotional learning via surveys in recent months.

“We’ve always known that these are areas of concern, but we’ve never had a tangible way of quantifying these concerns,” McKinney said. “We’re actually getting validated data that we can use to specifically address concerns across the district.”

Though some people are still hesitant to discuss mental health issues, younger generations seem to be more willing to talk about them, DeWeese said.

“It’s really OK if you’re not OK,” DeWeese said. “There’s much more openness; that fact in and of itself gives me hope for the future because it tells me this younger generation is more open to talking about what’s going on and helping one another work through that.”

Here are some resources for mental health and suicide prevention.