Overwhelming data reveals that teen mental health spiked negatively in 2021 in Oklahoma.
The most recent Oklahoma Youth Behavior Risk Survey conducted by the Oklahoma State Health Department, reports that nearly half of high school students in the state struggled with depression.
The YRBS is a statewide health behavior survey of public high school students that gauges the mental health and stability of Oklahoma’s youth.
The survey was conducted in the fall of 2021 to a group of 50 randomly selected schools, using established Center for Disease Control protocol. The classes chosen to participate were picked at random.
Stillwater High School was one of the schools that participated in the survey.
SHS Principal Walter Howell said the survey is conducted every two years, and the grades are chosen at random. Sometimes they include the eighth- and 10th-grade levels or the seventh- and 12th-grade levels – it depends on what they tell the schools.
“(It’s) an anonymous survey,” Howell said. “(The students) are pretty honest on it.”
Howell said the survey asks a lot of questions, like whether students have tried alcohol or vaping in the last 30 days. According to this recent survey, in Oklahoma there was a 50 percent decrease in teens who had tried cigarette smoking and a 20 percent decrease in teens who texted or emailed while driving.
“But there are quite a few questions about anxiety and depression,” Howell said. “It’s a growing problem for us. We work very hard to take good care of our kids.”
Although he’s glad that the school and staff can provide someone for students to talk to, Howell said things were different 10 years ago.
“It wasn’t uncommon for students to see a counselor outside of school,” Howell said. “I’m grateful that we’re able to help provide that, (but) it’s a newer thing that it’s now a daily (occurrence).”
Factoring the causesAlthough COVID-19 played a large role in the mental health of teens, Howell says that he’s seen a rise in mental health issues for teens recently beyond what the pandemic caused.
One reason is that there’s more awareness of the need for good mental health. But other reasons include poverty and economic struggles for teens, homelessness (living with someone other than their parents), a lack of direction for life after high school and life situations that prevent students from attending class.
“We have some students dealing with things that are adult issues,” Howell said. “We have students working to help their family, students providing childcare for siblings. Students miss school for some of those reasons and that affects them down the road.”
Beyond these issues, Howell said there are effects of the pandemic that contributed to the mental health of teens in Stillwater and the surrounding areas.
“I do think the pandemic made everything a lot worse, because it isolated so many people,” Howell said, “and those of us in education know that’s not the way you deliver education best. Education is a social thing.”
Howell said SHS has a small percentage of students who have continued with their virtual program because it’s a good fit, but the majority of the students do better in person.
Noting the statistics
Currently, Oklahoma ranks 28th in overall children and teenager wellbeing, according to a February 2022 report in America’s School Mental Health Report Card by nonprofit Inseparable Inc. An estimated 54,000 children in Oklahoma suffer from depression, and 30,000 haven’t received treatment for it.
In addition, they also found that in Oklahoma the ratio of school counselors to students is one for every 421 (the recommended ratio is 1:250).
Howell said that SHS has four counselors for 1,200 students, with one social worker and one high-needs counselor who also serve the elementary schools.
“That puts us at around one counselor per 300 students or so, which gets us closer to that recommended ratio,” Howell said.
With the recent loss of Stillwater High girls’ basketball coach Kendra Kilpatrick, Kira Frisby, a district level administrator, coordinated counselors to be on site for students and staff. They had help from agencies like Payne County Youth Services and GRAND Mental Health.
The counselors at SHS are not grief counselors, but their services cover a wide range of needs.
“There’s a lot that comes with the high school level of counseling, with career counseling and planning for college,” Howell said. “We were really blessed to get a fourth (counselor) a few years ago.”
He also said that although they don’t have therapists on staff, each year their counselors and staff has had a lot of training and professional development toward mental health awareness, with help from the district. They also have outside counselors who received approved agreements with the district to use office space at the school and to meet with students during the day.
Watching the signsHowell said the signs of mental health issues could be different for everybody.
“For some students, it’s going to be acting out in ways that they normally don’t, getting into trouble,” Howell said. “But for a lot of students, it’s (going to be) becoming more isolated. Whereas they normally would be involved or excited, you don’t see them at (events) or they’re not participating like they used to in those things.”
Teenagers’ countenances can tell you a lot, Howell said.
“Young people are always telling you what they’re thinking,” Howell said. “It’s just not necessarily direct. Their isolation in their room or their lack of family communication – they’re telling you something. If it’s unusual, then it’s something you should probably check on. I think if you pay attention, they’ll let you know.”
Howell said the role of the school, in addition to counselors on staff, is to help connect parents and students with those who can help them. They use a referral process for families to connect to local agencies like PCYS and GMH.
The CDC reports that the best way to help teens with their mental health is to help them stay connected to school and family.
Principal Howell would agree.
“I think the main thing is just to let them know that you’re paying attention to them and you notice them, you care about them,” he said. “And that’s one of our biggest roles as teachers here.”