Sara Holmberg’s job as a counselor at Dell Rapids Middle School has never been more challenging.
As fallout from the pandemic creates what the US Surgeon General calls a “youth mental health crisis,” school counselors like Holmberg find themselves providing not just academic and vocational guidance, but emotional support to students and families. Forging that many personal connections is difficult, so schools are exploring ways to supplement traditional counseling with professional partnerships to make sure teens get the attention they need.
Holmberg, 38, is one of three counselors in the Dell Rapids School District, which has 985 students. Now in her fourth year at the school, she is the only counselor serving the middle school, with an enrollment of about 300. She knows there is no way she can provide effective one-on-one guidance for every child, especially as more students and families continue to struggle with academic and financial setbacks from COVID-19.
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According to the South Dakota Department of Education, nearly 90 percent of accredited schools in the state held in-person classes during the 2020-21 school year, alleviating some of the loss of structure from when schools went to remote learning for nearly three months starting in March 2020, when coronavirus first hit the state.
And yet, many students continue to suffer emotional problems. Nationally, 37 percent of high school students reported they experienced poor mental health during the pandemic. according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey released March 31, while 44 percent reported they felt sad or hopeless during the past year.
This continues a trend seen before the pandemic, when a CDC data summary from 2009-19 found that more than one in three high school students said they had experienced such persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness in the past year that they couldn’t participate in their regular activities, a 40 percent increase from the previous report.
In South Dakota, suicide was the 10th-leading cause of death overall among all state residents in 2020, but was the leading cause of death among ages 10 to 19, according to the Helpline Center, a statewide suicide prevention agency. The crisis is particularly staggering for Native American youth, whose suicide rate is estimated by the South Dakota Department of Health to be 2.5 times higher than the white population, with social isolation during the pandemic increasing the emotional toll.
“The pandemic put mental health more on the radar and accelerated everyone’s concerns,” Holmberg said after meeting with a group of eighth-graders in her office on a recent school day. “Instead of it being part of background conversation, it brought those concerns to the forefront and became in many ways our main focus.”
Getting students involved
Leah DeHaan, a junior at Platte-Geddes High School, recalled her reaction when the school started a student-led “Hope Squad” to tackle suicide prevention and encourage communication about topics such as depression, anxiety, bullying and abuse.
“I was skeptical,” DeHaan said. “As a teen who has suffered from mental health issues myself, I was concerned that it was just shifting responsibility off the adults and onto the students, like they were using students as makeshift therapists.”
She had a conversation with Platte-Geddes school counselor Sadie Hanson, who assuaged DeHaan’s concerns and told her that the fact that she voiced them made her a perfect candidate to serve on the Hope Squad, which now has 15 members spanning grades 7-12.
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Hope Squad programs operate in 35 US states and Canada, with Platte-Geddes and Flandreau building teams in South Dakota. Students are asked to name three peers they would turn to if they were struggling emotionally. Those lists help educators choose team members, who are trained on how to recognize signs of suicide contemplation and depression.
“Studies show that teens who (die by suicide) typically tell a friend that they’re planning to do it, but that peer doesn’t always go to an adult or find a resource to help,” said Platte-Geddes superintendent Joel Bailey , adding that the phenomenon can be more pronounced in smaller communities.
Seeking a team effort
At last count, there were just under 25,000 students in the Sioux Falls School District and 66 school counselors, which equates to a ratio of 364 students to every counselor. That’s right on the state average for South Dakota and on par with ratios in neighboring states Iowa (370:1), Nebraska (369:1) and North Dakota (297:1). The American School Counselor Association recommends a lower ratio of 250:1.
“Building the new high school (Sioux Falls Jefferson) helped with the ratios, but we could always use more support,” said Travis Sieber, who heads the counseling department at Washington High, which has six counselors for 1,870 students. “Sometimes the mental health related duties become so top heavy that there aren’t enough hours in the day to address other aspects of the job, like academic support and post-high school planning.”
Sieber, in his 14th year at Washington, saw slippage in student performance following the spring of 2020, when classes went online. That loss of structure and in-person interaction fostered bad habits that were hard to break, he said, not to mention pandemic-related hardships faced by many families.
“For the first time in any of our generations, adults didn’t have all the answers when it came to safety and housing and a sense that everything would be OK,” said Seiber. “That created a sense of heightened anxiety that was passed down to students.”
Help is available outside the school, with medical providers such as Avera Behavioral Health, Southeastern Behavioral Health and the Lutheran Social Services PATH program partnering with the school district and taking on referrals. The Helpline Center offers a Text4Hope program that provides crisis texting support for all high school students in the state.
For most students, though, it helps to have a guiding hand and familiar face in the school hallways to enhance the educational experience. Sioux Falls used federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds to add seven more school counselors for 2021-22, encouraging them to actively engage with students rather than waiting to be consulted.
Putting South Dakota families in focus
In Dell Rapids, Sara Holmberg and her fellow counselors know that encouraging mental health conversations when appropriate is a team effort that stretches into households, where real solutions await.
“Even if I could meet every kid, I don’t know their family dynamics,” Holmberg said. “Everything might be fine one day and there could be a family crisis soon after.”
Dell Rapids Superintendent Summer Schultz started looking for ways to expand the school district’s outreach after seeing mental health concerns bubble to the surface during the height of the pandemic.
In partnership with the Utah-based Cook Center for Human Connection, Dell Rapids offers “virtual mental health nights” with online support for families from trained professionals. That program will be expanded using ESSER funds to provide a family coaching component, where parents have 24/7 access to consultants who can help with everything from behavioral issues to making a household schedule.
The school district is also utilizing an animated series called “My Life is Worth Living” created by Terry Thoren, who helped produce the “Rugrats” television show on Nickelodeon in the 1990s. The character-driven YouTube videos focus on topics such as bullying, suicidal ideation, sexual orientation and abuse.
“The series does a really good job of modeling for parents,” said Holmberg. “It gives them the language to talk about these things. Sometimes parents don’t want to push too much, so this serves as an icebreaker.”