Education Health

Past and present student advisors to the Kentucky Department of Education, alongside Democratic Lt. Gov. Jacqueline Coleman, addressed a bi-partisan committee of lawmakers Tuesday about how youth view and care for their mental health and about the resources they’re missing.

Recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows 37% of high school students experienced mental health challenges during the pandemic, and 44% of them reported feeling persistently sad or hopeless. But agency reports also show mental health struggles have been on the rise among young people for more than a decade.

Youth mental health in Kentucky

In Kentucky, 30% of high school students reported feeling sadness or hopelessness that interfered with their daily routines, according to a 2019 evaluation of youth risk behavior. Data also showed a majority of middle and high school students who experienced major depressive episodes didn’t receive professional help.

“We all know that the pandemic came with its own set of challenges and certainly created new issues that none of us had had to deal with before. But what it also did was it exacerbated old ones,” Coleman said. 

Since the pandemic, there’s been a 21% spike in the number of young people diagnosed with behavioral or conduct disorders.

A report from Jasmine Demers with the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting showed Louisville has had the highest concentration of suicide deaths among people under 25 for nearly a decade.

The report also showed young people of color were most at risk. Since 2020, more than 40% of people under 25 who died of suicide were either Black, Hispanic or Indigenous. Meanwhile, residents who identify with these demographic categories make up less than 30% of Jefferson County’s total population.

Young people share their recommendations

Members of KDE’s student advisory council facilitated statewide youth mental health summits, workshops and surveys over the last few years to better pinpoint shared mental health challenges.

Feedback from student participants highlighted prominent issues facing young people, including that they’re burned-out, don’t have adequate access to care and feel a stigma tied to mental health struggles. 

Student advisors used the information to craft possible solutions. Recommendations they proposed mirror some CDC guidelines and include:

  • Expanding access to mental health treatments, including in schools 
  • Amending state laws to allow for six annual excused mental health absences
  • Increasing mental health awareness and education, including more comprehensive suicide prevention efforts

“Our suicide prevention lessons or materials often seem very static, and like they’re just done because they’re required and that can be very dehumanizing,” student advisor Spandana Pavuluri said. “This is such an important topic, and we only have like one day a year, and that’s all that’s given to it. It feels very meaningless sometimes.”

Pavuluri, a senior at duPont Manual High School, said policymakers should include students in discussions that center them and incorporate their feedback when it comes to changes that could affect them.

“We have more superficial forms of student voice which include students just being consulted in a predetermined, adult-made agenda. But then we also have very meaningful forms of student voice where students are really uplifted as partners and leaders in their education, decision-making processes,” Pavuluri said.

She added students are the subject experts when it comes to their education and that they should be considered as such.

“My youth is always something I’ve had to apologize for when it comes to me being legitimate and being valued in education spaces. But I think now I can look back and say it’s definitely something that makes my work more qualified,” Pavuluri said. 

Logan Justice, a former member of the student advisory council, said to achieve meaningful change, the legislature should take a more robust approach toward implementing policies around mental health education, for both students and school officials.

“We want to foster a stigma-free school environment,” Justice said. “Eating disorders, depression, anxiety — all of those types of things that students face are important and should be covered in that mental health curriculum.”

He added that educational materials should go beyond an overview of challenges related to mental health. Justice said curricula should serve as a guide for young people and provide resources related to coping skills and ways to seek help. 

“We would like it to be evidence-based and discussion-based so that students aren’t just being talked to about it, but that they can be part of that process,” Justice said. “ When students can get together and talk about what they’re feeling, and how they are going through that, they learn a lot more.”

Other recommendations the student advisors highlighted include conducting mental health check-ins and offering mental health breaks at school and increasing awareness of and support for eating disorders. The group urged legislators to act on their suggestions at next year’s General Assembly session, which begins in January.

If you or a loved one struggle with mental health or have suicidal thoughts and would like emotional support, you can contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 — or 1-800-273-8255. Para Espanol haz clic aqui, o llame al número 988, o 1-888-628-9454.

Last month, the crisis line launched the shorter hotline extension with the goal that it would be easier for people to remember and serve as a medical alternative to calling 911. However, people raised concerns over the possibility that the new lifeline would divert calls to local police or lead to involuntary medical intervention or hospitalization.

Local mental health resources:

Support for this story was provided in part by the Jewish Heritage Fund.

Yasmine Jumaa is WFPL’s race and equity reporter.