There are a few ways to look at the situation.
On the one hand, it’s encouraging to see so many young people in Pierce County chatting at ease about the importance of mental health while braving the decades of stigma that followed experiences of depression, anxiety, and even suicidal thoughts.
On the other hand, what the kids tell us can be shocking and heartbreaking:
They need help and don’t know where to find it.
That’s perhaps the biggest benefit of a new pilot project being launched by the Tacoma-Pierce County health department. Described as a mental health emergency, according to Elizabeth Allen, TPCHD’s behavioral health policy coordinator, the goal is simple: to provide teens with the tools they need to identify the signs of a crisis or substance use disorder in their friends and classmates. , and then equip them with the skills they need to intervene and respond.
It’s something Pierce County youth have been asking for long before COVID-19, Allen told The News Tribune, which is sadly enlightening — and also what makes the pilot’s potential so powerful.
Our children are screaming for help. The least we can do is listen.
“We’ve been hearing from young people for years that they wanted more mental health resources, (and) more mental health support,” Allen said on Friday, explaining that TPCHD’s pilot project will focus on 7,000 10th graders in public health. schools in Pierce County, with hopes of starting classes taught by certified first aid mental health professionals early next year.
Whether it’s simply offering a sympathetic ear or helping someone connect with existing mental health resources — or knowing when to turn to a trusted adult — Allen said the big idea is to help children identify potential mental health issues among their peers. recognize before it is too late.
“Young people are very concerned. They are concerned about their mental health and that of others,” Allen said. “So we want to do something about that.”
Basically do something about the – the ongoing behavioral crisis in the province and the historic lack of services available, whether those services are for adults or children – is something we should all want. It also prompted the passing of the county’s 1/10th of a percent behavioral health tax, which was finally approved by a county council supermajority in December 2020 after years of controversial debate.
According to Allen, TPCHD’s mental health first aid pilot project will be funded with $600,000 in revenue from the tax. When asked why it has taken so long to establish a mental health first aid program for children in Pierce County, Allen said funding from the new tax made it possible.
After more than two years of COVID-19, it’s money that could hardly be better spent. While the lack of mental health services for the youth of Pierce County predates the pandemic, there is little doubt that the isolation, insecurity, illness and death caused by COVID-19 have exacerbated the problem.
Nationally, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a 2021 survey of high school students across the country found that 37% reported experiencing poor mental health during the pandemic, and 44% reported persistently sad or hopeless in the previous year. to feel.
Closer to home, by the end of 2020, emergency departments at local hospitals — including the emergency room at Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital in Tacoma — were already reporting a massive increase in mental health visits.
According to Allen, it is a disturbing trend that has yet to disappear. Today, more than half of local 10th graders report feeling sad or depressed most days, she said.
While Allen acknowledged it won’t solve every problem or prevent every crisis, she is optimistic about the difference mental health first aid training can make for local high school students.
If things go well, Allen said TPCHD will look to expand the project to other levels in the future, as well as more youth care organizations, such as nonprofits and faith-based groups.
The reality, she said, is that there is no time to lose.
“It’s so hopeful to see young people speaking up and talking about their mental health,” Allen said.
“Now we just have to do our part.”