State agencies work to expand mental health resources for students as disturbing trends rise

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Thursday, January 5, 2023
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State agencies are highlighting efforts to increase access to mental health resources, as teenagers report growing challenges.

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- State agencies are highlighting efforts to increase access to mental health resources, as teenagers report growing challenges.

"The Department of Health and Human Services and Department of Public Instruction have been working closely together to offer new behavioral health supports in schools, for example, expert child psychiatry consultation for schools and giving flexible funding to school health advisory councils that are in each district," said Dr. Charlene Wong, Assistant Secretary for Children and Families at NCDHHS.

According to the Youth Risk Behavior Survey, in 2021, 22% of high school students statewide reported they seriously considered attempting suicide within a 12-month span, up from 19% in 2019. On a larger scale, the percentage of high school students who said they feel good about themselves has plummeted during the past decade - from 80% in 2011 to just 49% in 2021.

Data shared by NCDHHS Secretary Kody Kinsley highlighted a disparity in the percentage of students who seriously considered attempting suicide or attempting suicide, with those who identify as Gay, Lesbian, or Bisexual reporting doing so three times more often.

Wong said they are pushing for greater public and private funding to address financial and transportation burdens that exist in reaching those in need.

"One of the reasons that we are really focusing on offering behavioral health supports in schools is we want to bring treatment services and supports to where kids are because we know transportation is a barrier sometimes to accessing that care," Dr. Wong said.

NCDHHS is looking for $4.2 million to fund telehealth pilots to expand access to about 10,000 students in districts without programs, as well as create a sustainability plan. It reports that statewide, only about 10% of schools will have telehealth services by this year, with even fewer including behavioral health. According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, just three counties have a "mostly sufficient supply" of child and adolescent psychiatrists.

"We've seen adolescents really struggle a lot beginning with the pandemic and the isolation that that caused for so many. And then the transition back into school, we're seeing some data that that has been very difficult as well," said Dr. Amanda McGough, a clinical psychologist who serves as North Carolina Chapter President of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

Dr. McGough encouraged parents to be proactive in engaging their children in conversations about mental health, in a manner similar to discussions regarding alcohol or drug use. Furthermore, she cautioned them about the use of certain language, including offhanded remarks, regarding the topic.

"I've had adolescents share with me before that if their parent has made a negative comment about for example a celebrity who's died by suicide or has shared a mental-health struggle and (say) 'Oh, that person's weak,' then the adolescent is far less likely to want to tell their parent about their own struggles," said McGough.

For Alice McGinley, the findings are a painful reminder and confirmation of what she's experienced during the past two decades.

Dan McGinley died by suicide at 16. His mother said he suffered from several sports-related concussions as well as a traumatic brain injury from a motor vehicle accident.

In 2001, McGinley's 16-year-old son Dan died by suicide; McGinley said he suffered from several sports-related concussions as well as a traumatic brain injury from a motor vehicle accident just months before his death.

"If you looked at Danny, you would have never known that this thought ever occurred to him," said McGinley.

She created H.U.G.S., which stands for Healing and Understanding of Grief and Suicide. McGinley has shared Dan's story in high schools, connecting directly with students about the importance of mental health awareness.

"For several years, I did suicide prevention in freshman health classes, and I was amazed at how many kids came forward and said 'I thought about this last weekend' or 'I was thinking about doing it this weekend.' And just being able to give them an alternative to that thought process make a huge difference," said McGinley.

She now hosts support groups for loved ones who have been directly impacted by suicide.

"I would say that a good number of the parents that I have in group right now are parents of young people, 16 to 24 (years old)," McGinley said.

Advocates who spoke with ABC11 agreed there have been improvements regarding destigmatizing mental health challenges, a key step in helping a person in need seek help. They encouraged parents with concerns to reach out to their child's pediatrician for a referral to a local mental health counselor.

If you or somebody you know is struggling with thoughts of mental anguish or suicide, you can call or text 9-8-8, which is the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, to be connected to help immediately. To learn more about its resources, click here.