Students as experts: Kentucky chosen for national mental health program

Published 2:36 pm Friday, June 7, 2024

Lieutenant Governor Jacqueline Coleman has a bachelor’s degree in education, a secondary education certification, a master’s degree and is nearly finished with her doctorate.

But while she takes the blood-borne pathogen training every year, she’s never had any training on student mental health.

“What that tells me is there’s at least half of the educated workforce that has never been prepared to deal with these challenges that we’re facing right now,” Coleman said. “How to talk about it, how to recognize and refer, and that’s alarming to me.”

Last week, Kentucky was named one of six states chosen for a national, yearlong program focused on achieving state-level mental health goals.

Coleman credits this to her team’s focus on the youth mental health crisis ever since the Delta variant hit in late 2020. While the mental health crisis wasn’t new, pandemic struggles brought it to the surface, she said.

A former teacher, Coleman chose to address the issue a little differently, using students as her “North Star.”

“I always heard adults talking to other adults about it, but I never saw a space given for students to share their experiences and their recommendations,” Coleman said. “And quite frankly, they’re the experts.”

Coleman created the Team Kentucky Student Mental Health Initiative, which borrowed the education commissoner’s student advisory council to travel across the state and talk to students about mental health.

These regional roundtable summits led to a series of policy recommendations, shared with the Kentucky General Assembly, state agencies, community partners and the federal government.

That then led to a $40 million federal grant to boost Kentucky’s school-based mental health services by recruiting and placing recently graduated mental health professionals in school districts.

Now, it’s time to take the next step forward, Coleman said.

The Policy Academy to Drive Thriving Youth Mental Health and Wellbeing

Alongside Alabama, Hawaii, New Jersey, Oklahoma and Virginia, Kentucky will participate in the National Governors Association’s latest mental health initiative— The Policy Academy to Drive Thriving Youth Mental Health and Wellbeing.

The academy will help states leverage national resources and expertise to advance statewide mental health goals. Coleman’s Kentucky team will meet with NGA regularly to work through challenges.

Coleman said the team has three broad goals.

First, they will explore ways to better fund school-based mental health services. Coleman said they may try to figure out a way to leverage federal Medicaid dollars, considering the large population of low-income Kentucky students.

Second, they will equip educators to better identify and support students’ and their own mental health.

“Our teachers have to take care of themselves so that they can take care of their students as well,” Coleman said.

Third, the team plans to establish a statewide school-based mental health coordinating body. The group would help implement the state’s mental health initiatives and find a way to bridge the gap between people from different silos to work toward common solutions.

Student mental health recommendations

In 2021, 28% of Kentucky high schoolers reported that their mental health was not good most or all of the time—including stress, anxiety and depression— according to the Kentucky Youth Risk Behavior Survey.

A quarter said they’d missed at least one day of school in the previous month because of their mental health status.

In the same survey, 19% said they’d seriously considered suicide at some point in the previous year.

The Team Kentucky Student Mental Health Initiative used this data, combined with conversations with over 300 students, to develop a set of policy recommendations. They are:

  • include and elevate student voice;
  • provide comprehensive suicide prevention;
  • allow excused mental health absences;
  • increase mental health awareness and education; and
  • increase and improve mental health professional development.

In 2021, the legislature followed through on one of the recommendations with House Bill 44, which allowed local school districts to include excused absences due to mental health.

Most of Kentucky’s 171 districts—minus about ten, Coleman said—have since created mental health day policies.

One of the bill’s sponsors, Rep. Lisa Willner, D-Louisville, said the effort began when students from Jefferson and Johnson counties independently reached out to her with the same idea—mental health absences.

Willner looped in Rep. Bobby McCool, R-Van Lear, and a third student, who were able to pass the legislation in one session. They discussed the need for mental health absences when parents could simply call in and say their child was sick. The students said that to remove stigma, it needed to be clearer than that.

“All of them talked about some hesitancy in their own families, in their own communities to talk about mental health concerns explicitly, and that by making it explicit in the statute, it would spark conversations, it would raise awareness, it would help reduce stigma,” Willner said.

McCool said he’s glad to hear about Kentucky’s selection for the national program.

“I look at mental health as any other health issue, whether it’s physical or whatever,” he said. “…If nobody knows what the issues are, then they can’t point you in the right direction to get the right help.”

Other mental health legislation

However, the legislature didn’t make much progress on the students’ other recommendations.

For example, funding for school-based mental health professionals has stagnated at $7.4 million a year while School Resource Officer funding has increased in the budget. Willner has advocated for more funding each budget year.

“The argument that I get back is that school districts have funds, and if they want to use them in this way, the individual school districts can do that,” she said. “…The reality, of course, is that schools are really strapped.”

Willner strengthened this year’s School Safety and Resiliency Act; the updated bill requires schools to submit and revise trauma-informed plans and further delineating trauma-informed teams’ focuses and goals.

If there aren’t enough mental health professionals in schools, Willner said the next best thing is to ensure schools themselves are more psychologically healthy places.

“The students were a little bit disappointed, and I had to explain to them that there’s more than one way to solve this challenge,” Coleman said.