COLD SPRING, Ky. — Kentucky students are facing a mental health crisis. On Tuesday, the state’s lieutenant governor announced funding to try to tackle that crisis in northern Kentucky.

What You Need To Know

  • Students across the country are facing a mental health crisis

  • Kentucky Lt. Gov. Jaqueline Coleman announced federal funding to help tackle the crisis in northern Kentucky

  • The money will be used to hire more mental health professionals in schools

  • One high school student said schools shutting down during the pandemic created many mental health issues for students

“Stop focusing everything on grades. Focus on me.”

“I wish there were more people to talk to."

“I just need someone to help me figure out the best way to handle all of the crazy stuff I’ve been through in my life, and to convince me I’m not crazy.”

These are just a few of the comments shared by students during a roundtable discussion, as told by Lloyd Memorial High School counselor Jennifer Glass.

Glass was one of the speakers as Lt. Gov. Jacqueline Coleman joined students and local educational leaders to announce federal funding that will increase access to school-based mental health services for more than 100,000 students.

“We find ourselves working as triage nurses in an ER. We are trained to assess situations, and many times, we have to refer out for services in situations that fall outside of our professional capacity,” Glass said. “To have access to mental health therapists in our school districts will be life changing to so many of our students, and I’m excited that our leaders in Northern Kentucky feel the same.”

She said there was already a need for more mental health services in schools before the COVID-19 pandemic. After the pandemic, Glass said the need has increased exponentially.

Beechwood High School senior Evan Duncan has seen some of the issues up close.

“I hear a lot of people that say a lot of negative things, and just stuff like they don’t want to be here, and all the stuff that they use to cope, unhealthy things that they use to cope with their mental issues, and it’s just not good. It’s really sad to listen to,” Duncan said.

Duncan was also part of a roundtable discussion. He said he understands what students are going through, because he goes through some of it himself.

It’s easy to see why by looking back to the start of the pandemic.

“We all thought it was just going to be a week or two, just stop going into school, and then it ended up being forever, a long time,” Duncan said. “When it first started, it was like, ‘oh, the poor seniors, they’re not going to have a graduation. But then really, we kind of got the short end of the stick. I missed more than half of my high school. And it's just not fun. High school is where you make all of your friends, and you connect with people. It was very different. I couldn’t be with my friends, so I kind of had to bear with it.”

Tiffany Hicks, the principal at Bellevue Middle/High School, said her district currently has two mental health specialists, but they have more than 80 students on their caseloads.

“We might have students who have missed over 15, 20 or even 30 days of school. The majority of them will come to me and ask to go virtual, or hybrid. So they’re running away. That means we need to build our toolboxes. We need to find more resources for them, so that they can come to school each day feeling engaged and empowered,” Hicks said. “Across my desk, I see higher levels of depression. I see self harm. I see self medicating with vapes, often with THC. This unfortunately leads to increased exclusionary discipline measures, such as suspension, and possible expulsions. And these are the kiddos we need in school the most.”

Coleman reinforced the idea that student mental health has been a growing problem even before the pandemic. The CDC, Coleman pointed out, reported one in five American children had a mental disorder like depression, anxiety, or substance abuse, but only about 20 percent of them received care from a specialized provider. Additionally, 15 percent of high school students reported seriously considering suicide.

Coleman said she kept thinking about how hard it was going to be for students during summer 2021 as schools were preparing to return to in-person learning.

“And I kept hearing adults talking to other adults and not listening to students about student mental health, so I decided to change that,” she said.

From that, the Student Mental Health Initiative was born.

Students across Kentucky came together, along with representatives from regional cooperatives and the Kentucky Department of Behavioral Health. They launched 10 regional action summits across Kentucky to hear directly from students.

The recommendations below are some of those developed by the students who partnered with Coleman, based on responses and input from nearly 400 students from across the Commonwealth who participated in a series of events in the fall of 2021:

  • Incorporate student voice into all levels of decision-making.
  • Make suicide prevention materials and resources available in every classroom and administrative office.
  • Offer evidence-informed suicide prevention curriculum at least twice annually.
  • Allow students six excused mental health days per school year.
  • Fund a licensed mental health professional, every day, at every K-12 school.
  • Offer peer mentoring and/or peer support for students who are not comfortable talking with an adult.
  • Foster stigma-free school environments.
  • Require updated evidence-informed mental health curriculum for K-12 students.
  • Offer opportunities to learn and practice executive coping skills.
  • Require annual evidence-informed mental health professional development for all school staff.
  • Ensure mental health professional development curriculum be evidence-informed and reviewed and/or updated regularly.

Coleman said they presented these findings to the federal government, Kentucky Board of Education, other state agencies, community partners and the state legislature.

In March, Coleman will be presenting the Student Mental Health Initiative alongside the U.S. Surgeon General to the National Lieutenant Governors Association.

Thanks to these efforts, Coleman said the state has secured funding to fight the mental health crisis in northern Kentucky.

“We were able to connect Kentucky’s educational cooperatives with federal funding opportunities made available through the federal Department of Education to support student mental health. And the Northern Kentucky Cooperative for Educational Services has been awarded $13.3 million over five years to hire mental health providers for the schools in the northern Kentucky region,” she said.

The money will expand access to mental health services for 19 districts and help 65,000 students in northern Kentucky. NKCES will use the funding to increase the number of school-based mental health service providers and the number of students receiving school-based mental health services by hiring 10 providers in the first year and 20 in succeeding years. This will impact over 65,000 students in northern Kentucky.

The U.S. Department of Education selected two educational cooperatives that applied for funding. The Northern Kentucky Cooperative for Educational Services (NKCES) will receive $13,263,481 over five years, and the Ohio Valley Educational Cooperative (OVEC) will receive $5,281,577 over five years.

Spectrum News 1 asked Coleman about the role the state itself may have played in contributing to the mental health crisis by shutting down schools. She gave an extensive answer:

“During the pandemic, we were faced with really, really difficult choices. And the number one priority, certainly prior to having a vaccination, or any of those types of things, I mean we didn’t even have PPE at the very beginning, was keeping people alive. And so to make sure we were able to keep people alive, we had to be, certainly, as isolated as we could be, until we had those resources to be able to keep us safe. And so that decision was made out of an abundance of caution for making sure we were protecting Kentuckians. And the sacrifice that our students made, in what probably the rest of us take for granted, because we got to go through high school really unencumbered, is remarkable. And their sacrifice helped to keep people alive,” she said. “If going to virtual learning meant that these kids got to go home to parents and grandparents at the end of the day, that’s what our goal was at that time. As we evolve out of this, the pandemic has made it really abundantly clear that there were issues that we were neglecting prior to that time. And so now we begin the work of making sure that we tackle those issues as well.”

Duncan is now thinking about college. He’s hoping to attend the University of Kentucky in the fall. And even though he wishes his high school experience was different, he said he’s glad future students will have more resources available to them when times are tough.

“I just think it’s good that we’re finally helping people out that need to be helped,” he said. “I think it will be a lot better since they’re actually starting to realize that it’s taking a toll on a lot of people.”