TOPEKA -- Each of Kansas State University's interns in public school counseling last spring encountered a student with suicidal thoughts.
Mental health complexities experienced by children in Kansas' public school districts spare no demographic. Students with behavioral, emotional or social challenges attend tiny and large schools, reflect all socioeconomic levels and range in age from preschool to high school. There is no discrimination by race, ethnicity or religion.
Judy Hughey, president of the Kansas School Counselor Association and an associate professor of education at Kansas State, said the statistical implications were sobering. On a national level, one in five youths aged 12 to 17 has a mental health diagnosis. Sixty percent of high school students with mental health needs fail to graduate. More teenagers and young adults die from suicide than from cancer, AIDS and a half-dozen other maladies combined, she said.
A 2018 Kansas survey indicated 17.9 percent of children contemplated suicide and 5 percent tried to commit suicide in the previous year.
"These statistics are alarming and reveal that students in significant numbers experience feelings and thoughts that isolate and lead to suicidal ideation and plans or other self-harming behaviors," Hughey said.
She was among psychologists, social workers and counselors who shared testimony Thursday with House and Senate committees at the Capitol in an attempt to better inform lawmakers and to encourage targeted state funding to extend services to all students in need. The work involves students with anxiety, depression, bullying, violence, eating disorders, substance abuse, social disorders or other conditions undermining academic progress.
Arkansas City native Hannah Klaassen, who is Miss Kansas 2018, attended the Senate Education Committee's discussion. Her public service platform focuses on improving quality of life among people with mental illness.
"My own Grammy’s battle with bipolar disorder and depression has shown me that hope is never lost, no matter how dark the world seems," she said.
Craig Hidy, representing the Kansas School Social Workers Association, works at a Greenbush educational service center in Topeka serving students from nine public school districts. The students can't be educated in their home school because of the severity of their condition, he said.
He said personal experience and interaction with other school social workers demonstrated proper investment in time and resources provided students opportunity to change perspectives, develop relationships and discover success.
"We have students who have been kicked out of multiple schools and are now at the end of the line," Hidy said. "In all honesty, many of these students are threatening, vulgar and come in with chips on their shoulders from past educational experiences."
But, he said, there was reason for optimism.
"Behaviors are not a reflection of the student but are a result of where the student has been," he said. "We see their resiliency, their fight, their survival of each day."
He said the 2018 Legislature's pilot program to enhance mental health services in schools resulted in hiring of 40 social workers, bringing the statewide total to 580. The state remains "significantly underserved" compared to national standard ratios of social workers to students, he said.
Harvey County school psychologist Jessica Mefford, who testified on behalf of the Kansas Association of School Psychologists, said Kansas had an acute shortage of psychologists in public schools. In 2017, the association found half of hiring agencies had unfilled positions. About 40 school psychology interns are preparing to enter the field in August.
"We don't have enough people entering the field. We have a high burnout rate," Mefford said. "Progress has been seen, but more work is needed to address the shortage."