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EDITORIAL: A worthwhile effort to aid OKC students

Daily Oklahoman - 10/3/2018

Oct. 03--email

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CONSIDERING the substantial number of adults who struggle with mental illness in Oklahoma -- our rate among adults is among the nation's highest -- it stands to reason that many youngsters are impacted. A survey of Oklahoma City Public School students bears this out.

The survey of district students was conducted in September 2017 as part of an initiative, called Embrace OKC, that focuses on improving mental health outcomes. The initiative is being led by community partners who comprise the Oklahoma City Schools Compact.

The Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services offers the survey free to all school students every other even-numbered year, but Oklahoma City hadn't conducted one since 2010. The Greater Oklahoma City Chamber, the United Way of Central Oklahoma and The Foundation for Oklahoma City Public Schools pitched in to pay for a special run of the survey last year.

The results, gleaned from more than 7,000 students in grades six, eight, 10 and 12, are concerning.

One in five of those who completed the anonymous survey reported feeling hopeless most or all the time in the previous 30 days. A similar percentage felt so depressed that nothing could cheer them up most or all the time. One in three said that most or all the time, they felt that everything they did was an effort.

It's difficult, if not impossible, to learn much when you're dealing with those feelings.

The survey also found that alcohol is the primary drug of choice among district students, and 36 percent had favorable attitudes toward high-risk behaviors such as using or selling drugs, being drunk at school or attacking someone with the idea of hurting them. Twenty-seven percent reported having a family history of high-risk behaviors.

Debby Hampton, president and CEO of United Way of Central Oklahoma, noted that students who deal with trauma, substance use or other mental health issues are more likely to have poorer grades, skip school or drop out. Addressing students' mental health "is foundational to the district's future success," she said.

Hampton is co-chair of the Embrace OKC task force, along with Terri White, who heads the state's mental health agency. White noted that half of those surveyed were in moderate or high need for mental health treatment and experiencing psychological distress.

Officials have taken the data to produce a plan designed to address some of the challenges district students and their families are experiencing. It will focus on three areas: substance use, high-risk behaviors and psychological distress.

White explained to the school board last week some of the different tiers of evidence-based programs that officials believe will make a difference. She said the project will be "historic."

Superintendent Sean McDaniel said the survey turned up some "brutal facts" but that this initiative will be "life-changing" for students. Tackling some of these, he said, will lead to better results in areas such as the remediation rate and graduation rate. "We know that we've got to resolve some of these foundational issues first," McDaniel said.

Kudos to all of those involved in formulating and carrying out this important effort.

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(c)2018 The Oklahoman

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