Berbeco: Innovative solutions to address youth mental health in schools

by Steven Berbeco, Mental Health Initiative Director, United Way of Northwest Vermont

You can’t talk about education today without also talking about mental health. Our schools are on the frontlines of the youth mental health crisis. However, the level of emergency that we can see is just the tip of the iceberg.  

There are a few things that we know about youth mental health in schools. We know that there are more than 80,000 students in Vermont. We know that there are only 200 licensed school counselors. But there is a lot we don’t know, a lot submerged beneath that iceberg.  

For instance, we know that in 2021 about half of all the high school girls in Vermont reported poor mental health, and about 1 in 5 had made a suicide plan. We know that suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death among Vermonters aged 15 to 34. But what we don’t know is what resources those kids had available to help keep them safe.  

We know that, nationwide, 1 in 4 people with depression show signs before the age of 17, yet the median age of depression diagnosis isn’t until they are 31 years old

We know that last year, hundreds of school-aged kids in Vermont visited an emergency department for suicidal ideation, poisoning, or other self-harm. High school youth who identify as LGBTQ+ were more than three times more likely to attempt suicide as compared to cisgender youth. But again, we don’t know who was there to identify the symptoms and help.  

A member of the leadership team at the Vermont Principals Association, who is also part of the United Way of Northwest Vermont’s Mental Health Initiative, puts it this way: “Schools are the one place kids have to be. And because of that, we sometimes expect schools to do everything.”  

Our schools are being forced to address the mental health crisis, but they’re not equipped to do that, and it’s not something schools can solve alone. It’s a systems problem that requires a systems level solution. We need to think differently.  

And that’s why the Mental Health Initiative is bringing Vermonters from all sectors and walks of life to the table to find solutions. We have about 200 participants from K-12 schools, early childhood education, and higher education, including principals and superintendents. We have participants from housing, transportation, the recovery community, and law enforcement. And we also have participants from local government, state government, and a few legislators, too. We have mental health professionals, of course, and Vermonters with lived experience. 

Because the solutions that we need, the solutions that will work for all of us, need to come from all of us. 

Together, we are supporting several projects to strengthen access to mental health services and care for our youngest Vermonters. 

Here are three of them: 

The first project makes space for kids to get help. Schools weren’t built for the pandemic, and they also weren’t built for coming out of a pandemic. Many schools have increased the number of school-based clinicians to meet the demand for mental health services. And that’s a good thing, because our kids need help.  

However, many schools don’t have dedicated therapeutic space for private and confidential conversations. Important conversations are happening wherever clinicians were able to find space: in a hallway, an auditorium, even a specially outfitted trailer

In response, the Mental Health Initiative is placing small, self-contained units that can be placed in a school or youth program. They resemble Mamava pods. These therapy pods are soundproof, they meet local fire regulations, and they can provide therapeutic space for these important private and confidential conversations.  

There is a pod right now in an elementary school in Chittenden County, and we are looking to expand to two or three more locations by this summer.  

Our legislators have been focused on how to support school construction in Vermont. Here is a small solution to a big problem, that doesn’t require architects, HVAC design, or permitting, and that will help provide private and confidential space in schools. 

The second project is a policy push for universal screening for anxiety, depression, and suicidality for school-aged youth through H.816, a bill that focuses on exactly this issue. We are grateful to the more than a dozen representatives who co-sponsored it. H.816 is in the House Committe on Health Care, and we are optimistic that it will be taken up for consideration.   

The third project is our Youth Mental Health Connections Call. This monthly Zoom call is where many of our participants get together to talk about youth mental health. We even have had a legislator or two drop in.   

Every call starts with a review of recent data, so we all are getting the same, up to date information about what is happening in Vermont. Then we have a guest speaker to talk about an aspect of youth mental health, including what’s happening in schools today. There is time for networking, too.   

I think that this may be the only place in Vermont where such a diverse group of people come together to learn and share with each other about youth mental health.  

The youth mental health crisis affects us all.   

Poor mental health is associated with states’ disability costs and rates of homelessness and incarceration. Within the United States, people with poor mental health are less likely to be part of the labor force, and poor mental health can result in worse educational outcomes.   

Children with untreated depression are additionally at a higher risk of more prolonged and severe depressive episodes in the future, risk of suicide, and risk of criminal behavior.  

Addressing youth mental health now will help prevent these negative outcomes, benefiting both the Vermont of today, and the Vermont of tomorrow.  

And addressing youth mental health in schools, where our youngest Vermonters spend most of their waking hours, is the place to make the greatest difference. 

Thank you to everyone who is helping pull in the same direction to support our youth. They need our help, and they need it now. Vermont Business Magazine