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Connection is the key to tackling mental health issues of young Kansans

Connection is the key to tackling mental health issues of young Kansans

Making peer-to-peer and community-level connections is one way Kansas teens are trying to help each other navigate the complexities of mental health and substance use.

“More people will open up to you if they can relate to you,” said Kailey Sprague, a student at Fredonia High School, Fredonia USD 484, who hopes to become a social worker someday. “What people need is empathy.”

Sprague is a member of Youth Leaders in Kansas (YLinK), an organization that allows teens to develop community awareness and leadership skills to promote mental health awareness and suicide prevention, and reduce the stigma surrounding mental health. She said her peers will often come to her with their troubles because they know she cares about them and empathizes with their situation.

“Just hearing that you made someone feel better,” Sprague said, “just makes you want to help the next person.”

Sprague and two other Kansas high school students recently shared their experiences trying to improve the mental health of their peers when substance abuse is a factor. They echoed each other’s sentiments that making connections and fostering relationships are key components of addressing mental health and substance abuse among people their age.

“Being the good example just gets the ball rolling,” said Macy Wohlgemuth, a student at Hesston High School, Hesston USD 460.

Hudson Ferralez said when he was a student at Hesston High School before transferring to Wichita Collegiate, he said the Hesston community as a whole was beginning to come together to address the mental health and substance abuse issues within the town of 3,500.

“It’s railing together to help defeat the problem,” he said.

Ferralez and Wohlgemuth are members of STAND, a youth-driven organization in several smaller south-central Kansas communities that aims to provide solutions for school-age children struggling with mental health and substance abuse in communities that don’t have mental health or addiction services. They, along with Sprague, recently participated in a Zoom meeting hosted by the Sunflower Foundation, the Kansas Fights Addiction Grant Review Board in the Kansas Attorney General’s Office and The University of Kansas Center for Public Partnership and Research (KU-CPPR) program’s “United We Transform” targeted statewide project “to identify means of reducing the enormous toll of substance use disorders in the lives of Kansans.”

The students were asked during the Zoom meeting why they think their peers are turning to substances to cope with their problems.

Ferralez said kids in general don’t know how to handle the adverse events going on at home and at school. He also said they are often influenced by how their peers are handling some of the same issues.

Sprague said many of her peers are dealing with depression and anxiety.

“They’re trying to find comfort in anything around them because they can’t find it at home,” she said.

Wohlgemuth said the situation gets worse for the kids when their parents are also using illegal substances or dealing with mental health issues.

“It’s all they’ve known at home,” she said.

“We’re getting blamed for what’s happening in our environment,” Sprague added. “A lot of people don’t understand that.”

Social-emotional growth: A “Kansans Can” outcome

The social-emotional growth of Kansas students remains a key component of the Kansas State Board of Education’s “Kansans Can” vision for Kansas students as it is an essential element “in producing successful high school graduates, and alignment with community and business expectations for student success.”

Trish Backman, school mental health coordinator at the Kansas State Department of Education, recently reported to state board members on how KSDE and other agencies are “connecting the dots” on addressing mental health for Kansas students.

“When we’re talking about mental health, we’re talking about the whole kid,” she told board members during their May meeting. “We’re focusing on learning and growth.”

With the start of the 2024-25 school year in just under three months, Backman told board members schools should have mental health teams in place to evaluate their mental health crisis plans and protocols.

She said all efforts should be made to reintegrate students back into school if they’ve needed to get mental health treatment or some kind of intervention that has taken them out of school. She said the goal is to continue the learning process and not have the student get behind academically from their peers.

Backman emphasized the importance of parental involvement in the mental health continuum.

“Parents are our first line of contact,” she said, adding that part of the student’s clinical psychiatric assessment is letting parents know what mental health services are available to access help for their child.

Backman also said the transition for the Mental Health Intervention Team (MHIT) from KSDE to the Kansas Department of Aging and Disability Services (KDADS) will be a “huge benefit for our Kansas kids.”

“This will be the consistency of care through the lifespan,” she said.

Backman said the work of the School Mental Health Advisory Council will continue, as it is a “wide, diverse group of stakeholders,” who are “considering all angles of impact” of Kansas kids’ mental health.

“Our job is really trying to connect the dots,” she said of the multi-agency efforts. “We really believe connection is the key to mental health. We believe in connection over content.”

(Pictured above: Trish Backman, school mental health coordinator at KSDE, updates the Kansas State Board of Education on the state's mental health initiatives for Kansas students during the board's May meeting.)

Posted: May 23, 2024,
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