Qualman: Eagle County school district addressing youth mental health and suicide (column)
It’s National Suicide Prevention Week, and with school back in session, now is an important time to talk about a difficult but critical topic: youth suicide.
The Healthy Kids Colorado 2017 survey revealed that nearly 1-in-4 Eagle County seventh- and eighth-graders seriously considered suicide — an increase of approximately 2.5 times the 2011 rate. Even more shocking, 1-in-6 have made a suicide plan. These alarming numbers represent some of the highest in the state and illustrate that we have a serious problem that needs our attention.
As assistant superintendent for Eagle County Schools, I work with counselors and students responding to issues that come up at school, disciplinary or otherwise. I know from experience that a proactive and effective approach takes time and resources. Unfortunately, these are resources that the county currently lacks.
As the Vail Daily has reported, this is not a new revelation for our community and some progress has been made as we work to solve this crisis.
In 2016, we received a grant from the Colorado Department of Education to hire four additional school counselors. In the 2017-18 school year, we hired five additional school counselors from the 3A mil levy, passed by our voters. And this past year, we received another grant from the Department of Education to hire two prevention specialists. They work with secondary students and teachers to bring evidence-based systems into our schools and education around at-risk behaviors.
Additionally, this summer, we revised our social-emotional curriculum based on state standards, in order to bring comprehensive social-emotional instruction to all students.
The Eagle County Board of Education allocated funds in the current year’s budget to address mental health. Funds will be used to hire in-school mental health therapists who will provide immediate support for students who require services beyond what school counselors provide. Eagle County has also committed funds from the November 2017 1A ballot initiative to address mental health throughout the county.
Leaders from all of our local public, private and parochial schools have joined forces to acknowledge that our kids are all connected through sports, clubs, activities, neighborhoods, churches and social media. We recognize that crisis situations are never isolated to a single school community.
Our efforts to improve youth mental health must include the entire community, embracing all students, regardless of enrollment in public, private or parochial schools. We recognize that our children are connected in the fabric of our community and that we must work together to develop a comprehensive and inclusive plan.
Our ultimate goal is to hire 17 therapists countywide, inclusive of public, charter and private schools. We are making some headway with county dollars, but it will take more funding and more time to adequately address mental health in our schools. This is where the Education Foundation of Eagle County comes into play.
The Education Foundation of Eagle County is working closely with the school district and collaboratively with mental health organizations to raise funds that will support the mental health services our students need. Our collective and first goal is to hire more therapists, and we know from the Education Foundation of Eagle County’s 17-year history in this community that when we come together, we can face the challenges in our schools head-on.
To meet our goals around student mental health, we all need to come together as a community. I encourage you to familiarize yourself with the Education Foundation of Eagle County and its collaborative approach to learn more about how you can become involved in addressing this issue.
Philip Qualman is an assistant superintendent with Eagle County Schools.