The kids aren’t all right

an illustration of a young adult sinking into water

K

ids today are sad. And anxious. And want to get help.

Most people who work with children, particularly in the realm of mental health, agree.

The rates of mental health issues in young people have skyrocketed in recent years. A wide range of factors are at play—greater access to healthcare leads to more treatment and diagnoses; technological advancements have made the internet and social media a major part of children’s lives for better or worse; isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic spanned several years of important childhood development; and the weight of only ever knowing a world where climate crisis, political instability and upheaval are the norm.

Noticing the worsening trends, in 2021 three major children’s health organizations declared a national emergency in child and adolescent mental health. Statistics show the grim reality.*

Big picture

Almost 20 percent of children in the U.S. age 3 to 17 have a mental, emotional, developmental or behavioral disorder. Only half will receive the treatment they need.

Estimated youth diagnosed with common conditions:
•	ADHD: 6 million
•	Anxiety disorders: 5.8 million
•	Behavioral problems: 5.5 million
•	Depression: 2.7 million
Recent studies of 12–17-year-olds revealed:
•	36.7% had persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness
•	18.8% seriously considered attempting suicide
These issues are increasing at an alarming rate:
•	In the last decade, suicidal behaviors in high school students rose by 40%.
•	Suicide is now the 2nd and 3rd leading cause of death for children ages 10-14 and young people ages 15-24, respectively.
Discrimination exacerbates mental health issues:
•	22% of children living in poverty have a mental health disorder.
•	28.9% of children that experience racial discrimination have a mental health disorder.

Taking the temperature in Mt. Lebanon

Kaitlyn Campbell, clinical director at Outreach Teen & Family Services, says perfectionism and anxiety are the prominent issues counselors see from kids in Mt. Lebanon. She describes many patients as “internalizers” who experience distress but don’t express it or display inappropriate behaviors.

“We’re also seeing a big struggle with social skills because of the pandemic and social media,” says Campbell. For years kids were stuck inside, isolated, during a significant developmental stage where they would’ve been interacting with peers and adults in person. Many children didn’t learn key social skills, according to Campbell, such as taking turns, eye contact, emotional regulation, finding commonalities with someone new, acceptance of others and social anxiety coping skills.

Mt. Lebanon schools have programs to teach some of these skills. In elementary school, students have biweekly classroom counseling lessons, which cover academic, social and emotional goals, including healthy coping skills, sharing with others and talking about difficult feelings. The schools offer small skill-building groups, which are developed based on current student needs. School counselors also provide short-term individual counseling to students, which is more goal-oriented and skill-focused than mental health therapy.

Lori Morin, a counselor at Washington Elementary School who has been with the district for 21 years, says “We’ve had elementary counseling since 2004. We’ve noticed a shift because we’re such a big part of the schools. Students view us as the helper in the building.”

In Pennsylvania, elementary schools are not required to have counselors. However, Mt. Lebanon has counselors in every school. Superintendent Dr. Melissa Friez says this is important because “In school systems, you begin to see things as early as kindergarten.”

One incredible aspect of addressing mental health in childhood is that you can prevent an issue from developing into a disorder. In this way, preventive care and early support systems can impact the rest of a child’s life.

The high school has mental health initiatives as well. Students can access the “mind den,” a space to relax and practice mindfulness. Also, there is a relatively new student organization called Bring Change to Mind is part of a national campaign to destigmatize mental health.

an illustration of a young adult alone in a row boat with land far off covered in mist

When a rough patch becomes something more

It can be difficult to know if symptoms are fleeting or indicative of a deeper problem. After all, change is a part of growing up. Whether you’re a caretaker concerned about your child or a young person questioning your own mental health, here is what to look for.

Indicators of positive mental health:

  • Affection
  • Curiosity
  • Little-to-no impaired functioning in social situations, in school and at home
  • Positivity
  • Resiliency (does well with change or adversity)
  • Self-control

Indicators of a mental health issue:

  • Avoiding or missing school
  • Changes in academic performance
  • Difficulty sleeping or changes in sleeping habits
  • Drastic changes in mood, behavior or personality
  • Extreme worry or overwhelming fear
  • Frequent headaches, stomachaches, nausea or fatigue
  • Hurting oneself (or talking about it)
  • Little-to-no interest in activities they once enjoyed
  • Out-of-control behavior, i.e. violence or running away from home
  • Outbursts or extreme irritability
  • Persistent sadness that lasts two weeks or longer
  • Recurrent nightmares
  • Repetitive behaviors such as asking for reassurance, confessing or checking
  • Significant weight loss or weight gain
  • Substance abuse
  • Talking about death or suicide
  • Withdrawing from or avoiding social situations

If you or your child is showing signs of distress, reach out to a mental health professional.

Brett Bielewicz, principal at Jefferson Elementary School, says Mt. Lebanon schools have “done a good job of counteracting the stigma, but that doesn’t always permeate the family or community.” He says some families can perpetuate mental health stigma to their children and have hesitation seeking help “because they don’t want their kid to be singled out.”

Yet, Bielewicz says the schools are still working to make sure the needs of all students are met. “You want [mental health conversations] to be a part of the norm. It’s about creating as much overlap as possible between the social/emotional learning and educational learning.”

Friez emphasized that parents and caregivers should always reach out to their child’s school counselor if they need assistance. “We have dedicated professionals that are here to help.”

The Mt. Lebanon School District has a longstanding partnership with outside community groups to assist with mental health, including Outreach. Outreach provides a discounted rate and two free counseling sessions to every patient who lives in Mt. Lebanon. It also works with schools on a variety of issues. One resource offered to students in grades 7 to 12 is the RAAPS (Rapid Assessment for Adolescent Preventative Services,) a 21-question wellness assessment that takes five minutes to complete. After filling out the questionnaire, students meet with an Outreach counselor during the school day to get immediate feedback on their strengths, ways to improve their wellbeing and, if needed, options for further intervention.

“Outreach is your first connection,” says Campbell. She provides referrals to other therapists in the area if the patient has a disorder that needs more specialized treatment, like obsessive compulsive disorder or self-harm. “A lot of people will tell you something is better than nothing. I don’t believe in that. A negative first experience [in therapy] can turn people away and cause unnecessary struggle, so we want you to get the right help the first time.”

The school district also partners with The Bradley Center, a social services organization that provides a wide range of psychological services for children, from outpatient therapy to intensive residential treatment. Prior to 2024, the district did not have school-based mental health providers (school counselors are not mental health providers or therapists.) In March, the high school and middle schools were approved to utilize The Bradley Center’s school-based providers to help students meet their educational and mental health needs. The Bradley Center provides services in-school, such as therapy, medication management, assessments and more. Friez expects the program will be approved for elementary schools in the near future. “We’re very fortunate to have not only The Bradley Center, but also community resources like Outreach, right in our backyard.”

All hands on deck

In 2021, the U.S. Surgeon General released an advisory on youth mental health: “The challenges today’s generation of young people face are unprecedented and uniquely hard to navigate. And the effect these challenges have had on their mental health is devastating.”

How young people can get help—Tell a trusted adult if you are struggling and don’t stop until you get the help you deserve. Find ways to serve your community to combat isolation. Invest in healthy relationships and try to make social connections. Practice stress management and take care of your physical wellbeing. Be intentional about how you spend your time online. Support the other people in your life, especially if they’re struggling.

How caregivers can help—Be a role model by taking care of your own mental health and do not perpetuate negative stereotypes about mental illness. Provide a stable and predictable home environment. Take your child for regular preventive health services. Look for warning signs and reach out for help if needed. Practice firearm and medication safety in the home. Be aware of your kids’ online activity. If your child is diagnosed with a mental illness, educate yourself about it. Explore stress management skills to respond to challenging situations calmly. Remind your child of their strengths and abilities.

How schools can help—Create positive, safe and affirming environments. Proactively talk about mental health, using inclusive language. Consider structural changes to support student wellbeing, such as later start times. Implement evidence-based social and emotional learning programs. Coordinate with families to provide necessary support and accommodations for students with mental health conditions. Provide preventive resources, screening, intervention and treatment options at the appropriate level of care. Use federal, state and local grant/funding opportunities to hire additional school-based mental health staff. School counselors, nurses, social workers and psychologists can provide invaluable assistance and care for students that may otherwise go without help.

Campbell says the good news is that is that kids are resilient. Fortunately, many children and teens are brave enough to talk about what they’re going through and have trusted adults to help them.

A few takeaways

Diagnosis can take time. Change can take time. Finding the right therapist and the right treatment can take time. Yet, mental health professionals agree it’s worth it to be persistent and put in the work, especially if it means having stronger mental health and a better quality of life.    

If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, call 988 to speak with a trained professional at the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline, available 24/7.

This is the second article in a three-part series on mental health in Mt. Lebanon. Mental health issues have long been swept under the rug—but that is changing, especially in recent years. This series aims to uncover mental health concerns in our community, shed light on areas for improvement and provide support to those in need.