Lehigh Valley students have not been spared from what has become a growing nationwide mental health crisis.
Middle and high school students in the Lehigh Valley are experiencing the same mental health issues seen in young people across the country as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to new research from the Lehigh Valley Justice Institute.
“We need everyone on deck right now,” Joseph Welsh, the institute’s executive director, said at a news conference on Tuesday. “This problem is simply too big and too important. It is literally the future of our communities.
The High Valley Justice Institute is a non-profit organization founded two years ago to focus on solutions to criminal justice issues in the region. The institute released its mental health needs assessment on Tuesday to raise awareness of mental health issues facing students locally and to indicate that local response models are viable solutions, namely the work of the wellness center from Liberty High School.
The institute wants to disrupt the ‘school-to-prison pipeline,’ in which it says tough school policies propel students, especially those with mental health issues, into a future entangled in the justice system criminal.
Using a combination of state surveys and referral information, institute researchers analyzed student data from five school districts and one charter school in the area, including including Bethlehem area, Easton area, Catasauqua area, and Whitehall-Coplay school districts. A Northampton County district and a charter school participated anonymously in the study. The institute also looked at state and county data.
Lehigh and Northampton counties reported symptoms of depression among college students and suicide risk rates approaching those of Pennsylvania; however, county results showed some variation.
Northampton County saw a higher percentage of students affected than Lehigh County and trended above the state rate, while Lehigh County was below. A higher percentage of students in Northampton County responded that they “felt depressed most of the time” and “seriously considered suicide” than in Lehigh County.
Looking at the five school districts and one charter school that provided data, most of these agencies also had a higher percentage of students with symptoms of depression, suicidal ideation, and self-harm compared to the rate of the state.
BASD and Northampton County Anonymous District reported responses more on par with the state rate.
“We also found that young people’s mental health is likely linked to other factors of well-being and success,” said Victoria Wrigley, data scientist at the institute. “Students who exhibited symptoms of depression were more likely to have used alcohol, vaped, had low grades, and been bullied.”
The Lehigh Valley Justice Institute report highlights Bethlehem, particularly Liberty High School, as a model for other local districts to follow when responding to mental health issues cited in the study, such as anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts.
Liberty Principal Harrison Bailey III noticed the impacts of trauma on students’ academic performance more than six years ago and began his mission to address his students’ mental health issues. He did this by helping to create a student wellness center and implementing mindfulness practices and training during student school days.
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“Nobody was really talking about trauma,” he said. “That word wasn’t in most people’s vocabulary, and now it seems to be everywhere, but that’s really where it all started.”
Bailey said he hopes Liberty’s wellness center will serve as a model for schools across the country. The wellness center is equipped with a peace room allowing students to regulate their emotions when they need a space to calm down. Students also have access to four full-time therapists.
The institute’s study also notes Liberty’s relatively high percentage of referrals to the student aid program — last year, about 27% of its 2,800 students received a referral, which can include health referrals. mental.
Other schools’ referral rates were half or one-fifth of Liberty’s. The institute says Liberty’s high rate may be the result of the school’s dedication to addressing mental health through the wellness center and other practices.
Of the students who accessed the Liberty Wellness Center, about 16% noted an improvement in their clinical symptoms after six months.
“There are very few schools that have a well-functioning wellness center like ours,” Bailey said. “We hope that one day every school in the Commonwealth will have a functioning wellbeing center and that it will spread across our country.”
Morning Call reporter Jenny Roberts can be reached at 484-903-1732 and [email protected].