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Survey helps educators prioritize mental health in Solon Springs

Daily Telegram - 3/11/2020

Mar. 10--The 2019 Youth Risk Behavior Survey is a starting point for educators in Solon Springs.

Offered every other year, the confidential, self-reported survey is part of a national effort by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to monitor health-risk behaviors among the nation's high school students. The biggest issue from the 2019 survey for School Counselor Russ Nelson was mental health, which he described as "in crisis mode."

"We need people to see how big of a problem mental health is in our region for our youth," he said.

Although parents may hear about mental health concerns in the media and from legislators, the survey lays out the issues Douglas County students are facing. High school students from Solon Springs, Northwestern and Superior high schools participated in the 2019 questionnaire.

RELATED: Superior pushes for student mental health resources

RELATED: Survey tracks risky behaviors among Douglas County students

The survey results show that more than twice as many girls as boys -- 45% to 22% -- reported experiencing depression in the past 12 months and nearly twice as many girls as boys -- 65% versus 35% -- reported problems with anxiety during that same time frame.

Thirty percent of girls who responded and 11% of boys reported intentionally harming themselves in the past year and 26% of girls reported seriously considering suicide compared to 15% of boys.

More students are living with mental health challenges, and a growing number of students are considering suicide, Nelson said. Furthermore, students are seeking help with their mental health younger than ever before, he said.

In a rural district like Solon Springs, Nelson said access to mental health care is "terrifying."

The district brings in a counselor once a week from Superior Counseling. In nearby Minong, North Lakes Clinic has a small staff of mental health professionals available.

At the school level, Nelson bears the brunt of the work in grades 4K through 12. When he refers students to mental health services in the community, he said he usually sends them to Duluth. That creates barriers based on distance and state lines, as some Wisconsin insurance plans are not accepted in Minnesota.

"It's a challenge when you refer out because you're asking a parent to drive 40 miles," Nelson said.

Finding a low-cost transportation solution for these families or bringing in a mobile health care clinic could help ease barriers to mental health care.

Community members can help, too, Nelson said. The power of one caring, supportive, non-judgmental adult can make a huge difference in a child's life, he said. He encouraged parents and adults to create a safe zone where children can talk honestly to them about these issues.

"And work with us, work with local medical and counseling clinics and find ways," Nelson said. "The numbers are bad. Be alarmed. Let's work on it together."

Making connections

Unlike other districts in Douglas County, Solon Springs had its middle school students take the 2019 survey. With 44 middle school students who responded, the number was too small to include on the district-wide results. But one statistic alarmed Nelson. Less than half of Solon Springs middle school students -- 48% -- reported they felt a sense of belonging at school.

"That was a huge 'Aha' of we've got to do something to make connections and make them feel more connected," Nelson said.

Focusing on mental health needs could help, he said. Of the 52% of middle school students who felt they didn't belong at school, 88% of them reported one or more mental health concerns -- anxiety, depression, self-harming or thoughts of suicide.

On the flip side, about 80% of Solon Springs high school students and three-quarters of middle school students reported they had a trusted adult they could talk to at school, the data showed.

Overall, the 2019 survey pinpointed areas where educators and community members should focus their efforts to help children.

"The value of the survey is knowing where our kids are at," he said. "The first step to solving any problem is identifying that you have a problem."

The results have been shared with the Solon Springs School Board and with school staff, but Nelson said educators need more partners.

"When the community can start rallying around these calls and make it a community effort, that's a lot of power," Nelson said. "It's a huge thing, but I think together we can find the right ways to the right solutions."

Substance abuse survey

At a town hall meeting hosted by Northern Lights Coalition this winter, community members learned about substance use among students at Solon Springs and Northwood high schools. Students completed questionnaires separate from the Youth Risk Behavior Survey, the results of which show:

* 32% of Northwood students and 29% of Solon Springs students said they used alcohol in the past 30 days.

* 12% of Northwood and 20% of Solon Springs students reported using marijuana in the previous month.

* 20% of Northwood and 29% of Solon Springs students said they vaped in the past 30 days.

* 7% of Northwood and 10% of Solon Springs students reported using prescription drugs in the last month.

* 53% of Northwood and 19% of Solon Springs students felt marijuana was harmful or posed a risk to them.

Solon Springs students were more likely to see tobacco (70%) and prescription drugs (69%) as harmful and about half of Solon Springs High School students, 48%, felt alcohol was harmful.

Nelson said the percentage of Solon Springs students who view marijuana as harmful is troubling. Like alcohol, marijuana is toxic to a developing brain.

"We're creating a culture that says to kids, 'Marijuana is safe,'" he said.

To get help

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National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: (800) 273-8255

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Douglas County Crisis Line: 715-392-8216 or 715-395-2259

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Crisis Text Line: Text "HELLO" to 741741 to speak with a trained listener. The service is free, available 24/7 and is confidential.

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(c)2020 the Superior Telegram (Superior, Wis.)

Visit the Superior Telegram (Superior, Wis.) at www.superiortelegram.com

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