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Nearly 20% of Lehigh, Northampton County students ‘seriously’ considered suicide, Lehigh Valley Justice Institute finds in study of mental health
Morning Call - 11/15/2022
Lehigh Valley students haven’t been spared from what’s become a growing nationwide mental health crisis.
According to new research from Lehigh Valley Justice Institute, middle and high school students in the Lehigh Valley are experiencing the same mental health struggles as seen in youth across the country in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We need all hands on deck right now,” Joseph Welsh, the institute’s executive director, said at a news conference Tuesday. “This issue is just too big and too important. This is literally the future of our communities.”
Lehigh Valley Justice Institute is a nonprofit founded two years ago to focus on solutions to criminal justice issues in the region. The institute released its Mental Health Needs Assessment on Tuesday to spread awareness about the mental health challenges students are facing locally, and to point to local response models as viable solutions, namely the work of Liberty High School’s wellness center.
The institute wants to disrupt the “school-to-prison pipeline,” in which it says harsh school policies propel students, especially those with mental health struggles, into a future entangled in the criminal justice system.
Using a mix of state survey and referral information, researchers at the institute analyzed student data for five school districts and one charter school in the region, including Bethlehem Area, Easton Area, Catasauqua Area and Whitehall-Coplay school districts. One Northampton County district and a charter school participated anonymously in the study. The institute also examined state and countywide data.
Lehigh and Northampton counties reported student depression symptoms and suicide risk rates close to that of the Pennsylvania rate; however the county findings showed some variation.
Northampton County saw a higher percentage of afflicted students than Lehigh County and trended above the state’s rate, while Lehigh County was below. A higher percentage of students in Northampton County responded that they “felt depressed most days” and “seriously considered suicide” than in Lehigh County. The number of those who considered suicide exceeded 20% in Northampton County, while fewer than 20% considered it in Lehigh County.
When looking at the five school districts and one charter school that supplied data, most of these agencies also had a higher percentage of students experiencing depression symptoms, suicidal ideation and self-harm when compared with the state rate.
BASD and the anonymous Northampton County district reported responses most on par with the state rate.
“We also found that youth mental health is likely related to other well-being and success factors,” said Victoria Wrigley, the institute’s data scientist. “Students who experienced depression symptoms were more likely to have consumed alcohol, have vaped, received poor grades and have been bullied.”
Lehigh Valley Justice Institute’s report highlights Bethlehem, specifically Liberty High School, as a model for other local districts to follow as they respond to the mental health concerns cited in the study, such as anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation.
Liberty Principal Harrison Bailey III noticed the impacts of trauma on student academic performance more than six years ago and began his mission to respond to his students’ mental health concerns. He did this by helping create a student wellness center and implementing mindfulness practices and training into students’ school days.
“No one was really talking about trauma,” he said. “That word was not in the vocabulary of most people, and now it seems to be everywhere, but that was really where it started.”
Bailey said he hopes Liberty’s wellness center serves as a model for schools throughout the country. The wellness center is equipped with a peace room for students to regulate their emotions when they need a space to calm down. Students also have access to four full-time therapists.
The institute’s study also notes Liberty’s relatively high percentage of referrals to the Student Assistance Program — last year about 27% of its 2,800 students received a referral, which can include mental health referrals.
Other schools’ referral rates were half or a fifth of Liberty’s. The institute asserts Liberty’s high rate may be a result of the school’s dedication to addressing mental health through the wellness center and other practices.
Of students who accessed Liberty’s wellness center, about 16% noted an improvement in their clinical symptoms after six months.
“There are very few schools that have a wellness center that operates the way ours is operating,” Bailey said. “We hope that one day all of the schools in the commonwealth will have a working wellness center and that it will spread across our nation.”
Morning Call reporter Jenny Roberts can be reached at 484-903-1732 and email@example.com.
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