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New Report Analyzes Youth Mental Health Crisis, Spotlights Efforts of Local High School | WDIY Local News

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Liberty High School in Bethlehem

Suicide risk and depression symptoms are on the rise for Pennsylvania youth, including those in the Lehigh Valley. A newly-released report by the Lehigh Valley Justice Institute has raised alarms. WDIY’s Sarit Laschinsky has more.

The 27-page report, released by the nonprofit Lehigh Valley Justice Institute, said two in five youth in Pennsylvania felt depressed most days in 2021.

Three in 10 were at risk for suicide, and one in nine attempted suicide at least once. Suicide risk and depression symptoms have also been trending upward statewide since around 2013.

The LVJI said it presented the report to promote public awareness and pull community resources together to address the “mental health state of emergency,” as it’s called by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children’s Hospital Association.

The assessment pulled most of its data from student self-reporting surveys, as well as a referral process called the Student Assistance Program, which is used to identify students with academic or mental health problems and is run by the state Department of Education.

Local data came from six sources – Bethlehem Area, Easton Area, Catasauqua Area and Whitehall-Coplay school districts, as well as one anonymous Northampton school district and an unnamed charter school.

The study found that mental health symptom rates vary from county to county and that according to Mental Health America, almost 40% of state youth having a severe major depressive episode receive consistent support, the seventh-highest rate in the country.

But, the LVJI report says not all students have equal access to care.

County SAP referral rates also varied but were “mildly correlated” with social worker and depression symptom rates, with an average county referral rate of 7.9%. Lehigh and Northampton Counties had similar referral rates to the state, at 8% and 8.7% respectively.

Northampton County also reported slightly higher depression symptom and suicide risk rates than Lehigh County. Northampton County reported higher percentages of afflicted students, trending above the state’s rate while on several mental health questions, Lehigh County trended below the state.

Mental health symptom rates across the selected Lehigh Valley schools also varied, with many seeing higher percentages of students who attested to experiencing depression symptoms, suicide ideation and self-harm compared to the state rate.

Bethlehem Area School District and the unnamed Northampton school district were the most consistent with the state rate, according to the survey.

The assessment spotlighted the efforts of Liberty High School, and its principal Dr. Harrison Bailey, in taking a dedicated “proactive approach to mental health services,” and said Bailey hopes the school’s experiences and approach could serve as statewide model.

Specifically, the report highlighted Liberty and Bailey’s efforts to provide mindfulness resources and education to students along with the school’s Wellness Center, which offers a calming space for students to de-stress, along with therapy and counseling services.

It also noted that Liberty’s SAP referral rate in 2021-22 was almost 27% of the student population, while other schools’ referral numbers were a half or a fifth of Liberty’s. Additionally, 16% of Liberty students self-reported an improvement in clinical symptoms after six months of receiving therapy services at the Wellness Center.

According to the assessment, one in four or five children will have a mental disorder at some point in their life, and 70-80% of children who receive mental health services get them in school.

The LVJI acknowledged that its report provides a wide-level overview of Pennsylvania and the Lehigh Valley’s youth mental health picture, but stressed that more research, resources and collaboration will be necessary to help tackle the crisis.

The full report can be viewed here.

(Original air-date: 11/16/22)

Sarit "Siri" Laschinsky is WDIY's Interim News and Public Affairs Director.
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