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Schools, universities focusing on mental health as new data shows more teens and young adults are struggling

CDC officials said as kids get their education, they also need to be in a safe and supportive environment and connected to resources.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — A huge spotlight is shining on the mental health of kids and young adults. Monday, the CDC put out a new report detailing startling trends related to high school students in America. The bottom line: More young people than ever are experiencing a level of distress that requires action.

Students spend most of their time at school. CDC officials said as kids get their education, they also need to be in a safe and supportive environment and connected to resources. Data shows a growing number of teenagers are struggling with their mental health.

According to the CDC’s youth risk behavior survey, in 2021, 42% of U.S. high school students experienced persistent sadness or helplessness and 10% attempted suicide.

If you or a loved one are facing thoughts of suicide or self-harm, there is help readily available. You can call Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988 or chat with them online. There are also resources in North Carolina available here and in South Carolina available here.  

“Although we have seen worsening trends in mental health for young people over the last 10 years, the levels of poor mental health and suicidal thoughts and behaviors reported by teenage girls are now higher than we have ever seen,” Kathleen Ethier with the CDC said.

Research shows levels of depressive symptoms and suicidal thoughts are twice as high among teen girls as teen boys.

“These data are hard to hear and should result in action," Dr. Debra Houry, chief medical officer for the CDC said. "As a parent as a teenage girl, I am heartbroken. As a public health leader, I am driven to act."

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CDC leadership believes schools must take an active role.

Mental health in grades K-12

Last school year, Rock Hill Schools was the first school district in the area to create a mental health department. On Tuesday night, the mental health director presented the school board with an update on the program.

Nancy Turner, director of the Rock Hill Schools Mental Health Department, led the charge at the school board meeting, updating the progress the district has made with the help of specific programming. The behavioral health and crisis management teams are fielding every referral they're getting.

"We are managing to see as many students as we possibly can but we know there will be more," Turner told WCNC Charlotte.

The district has worked hard at providing access for students to counselors and therapists through site-based therapy.

To help with funding, Rock Hill has made some critical collaborations with other nonprofits. The Hayden Hurst Family Foundation is just one of many that specifically focused on mental health training, advocacy and awareness.

With 24 mental health clinicians, the district knows they need more. That's something they will be focusing on for next year.

"We need to take a look at the budget for next year with the school board and finance department as referrals increase and needs increase," Turner explained.

Tyler Keith, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker with Thriveworks Counseling told us, "We need to put the services and counselors right inside the pockets of these schools to make impacts."

He says many of his clients are teachers that have so many other pressures but realize mental health is becoming a topic where they need tools in the classroom.

Just last May, a report came out from the South Carolina Department of Health and Human Services receiving a failing grade. The report showed that there were not enough counselors to cover even half of the public schools in the state. 

Mental health at college

It’s a challenge at the college level too. On Monday, Governor Roy Cooper announced a $7.7 million investment into mental health services at the college level to continue to build on and sustain initiatives created after a $5 million grant awarded in May of 2021.

It’s coming at a critical time. Over the weekend, a NC State student died by suicide in her dorm. It marks the fifth time a student at NC State has died by suicide since the start of the school year.

NC State is one of the 17 universities on the receiving end of the grant money. UNC Charlotte will also benefit.

UNC system officials said this funding will go toward putting case managers in residential living communities and within academic advising units. Case managers can help support students in distress.

It will also help continue to provide 24/7 tele-mental health services. Every month, more than 250 students use the existing services.

UNC System officials said prevention also needs to be a focus so some of this money will be invested in resiliency training so that students can better recover from trauma or sources of stress.

RELATED: Mental health crisis resources you can use today

In 2021, UNC Charlotte got some of the grant money to launch a behavioral health and resiliency training program on campus. This month, there are several upcoming campus events geared towards mental health.

Students at NC State will have a health wellness day on Thursday without classes, and counseling services are available.

Contact Chloe Leshner at cleshner@wcnc.com and follow her on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.  

Contact Colin Mayfield at cmayfield@wcnc.com or follow him on FacebookTwitter and Instagram. 

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