As efforts continue to lessen stigma and discrimination regarding mental illness — the challenges have become even greater during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Even so, there are ways to strengthen awareness and improve access to treatment and counseling for troubled youth and adults, according to Sativa Fisher, a social worker for the Hernando County School District.
Fisher was a featured guest speaker during an April 27 virtual social services event hosted by Saint Leo University’s East Pasco Education Center.
Her talk was part of a speaker series for students and prospective students interested in “helping careers.”
Topics for the free online series were selected with the goal of having broad appeal to those interested in social work, education, criminal justice, psychology, and human services.
Fisher’s presentation focused on her work, the prevalence of youth mental health issues and the function of social workers in the public school setting.
The social worker emphasized just how “widely underestimated” mental illness is in the United States, particularly among teens and high school students.
She cited these statistics and figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’s 2019 Youth Risk Behavior Survey:
- 19% of students nationwide considered suicide
- 16% of students nationwide made a suicide plan
- 9% of students nationwide attempted suicide
- Notable risk factors for suicide ideation include being a non-Hispanic, Black female who identifies as lesbian, gay or bisexual.
Fisher also shared various findings from Mental Health America, the nation’s leading community-based nonprofit to address the needs of those living with mental illness and promoting overall mental health of all:
- 9.2% of United States youth ages 12 to 17 cope with severe major depression
- The state prevalence of youthwith severemajor depressive episodes ranges from 6% in Mississippi to 13.2% in Nevada (Florida stands at 10%).
- The number of youth experiencing major depressive episodes increased by 121,000 from 2018 to 2019.
The social worker pointed to an “alarming” finding in her research cited from Mental Health America — youth experiencing major depressive episodes continue to go untreated.
Even among states with greatest access for youth, almost 50% of youth still do not receive the mental health services they need, according to the organization’s reports, Fisher said.
“It’s interesting how much of an issue mental health is, and how undertreated it is, even within our society today,” said Fisher, who obtained her bachelor of social work from Saint Leo University and her master of social work from University of South Florida.
Fisher also shared her thoughts about potential contributing factors regarding why suicide ideations and major depression have become so prevalent among American youth in recent years.
“We have many kids who have access to social media and are learning a lot more than they used to, and that’s become evident between both in elementary and middle school, and the things that they’re exposed to, they don’t know, developmentally, how to deal with it,” she said.
The pandemic hasn’t helped, either.
Fisher referenced data showing about 40% of U.S. adults reported struggling with mental health this past year, up from about 25%, pre-COVID.
Parents and caregivers are struggling “with everything that comes with being in this pandemic that we all have experienced,” she said.
The rising levels of stress, loneliness, depression, anxiety has all but “rubbed off” on children, Fisher said.
“I’ve heard more stories of families having friction, more arguments,” Fisher said. “(Students) just feel more anxious…and that shows up in their schoolwork, that shows up in their peer relationships, with their adult relationships.”
Social work delivers rewarding responsibilities
Fisher is one of 13 social workers in the Hernando County School District.
She started working this past school year, amid the pandemic.
Besides her educational background, Fisher joined the district equipped with real-world experience — having worked in internships in a hospital pediatric unit and residential program for adolescent girls.
In her role, Fisher assists kids, families and the community at large. She strives to “make a difference in someone’s life.”
She also described the duties of a school social worker, which includes making referrals, doing evaluations and completing behavior assessments. It also involves problem-solving through multi-tiered system of supports, counseling, teen parenting education, substance abuse education and more.
“It’s so much,” quipped Fisher, who also has started completing the supervision requirements to become a Licensed Clinical Social Worker.
She detailed how school social work has evolved from focusing on attendance and truancy issues to being more involved with students who have mental health and behavioral issues.
Today’s school social worker reaches out to parents of students who are undergoing major behavioral issues, gathers information on their home life, and offers potential solutions and sources of help.
Fisher put it like this: “Sometimes, parents don’t even know the resources available to them, so if they have a student who’s having major behavior issues and they don’t understand why, maybe we’ll talk a little bit about that. Some kids require a little bit more structure than other kids. Some kids require to be spoken to a little bit differently. Every child is different…”
School systems play an important role in helping bridge the mental health gap, she said.
“Many people will say, ‘Oh, it’s on the parents,’” Fisher said.
But, parents don’t always know about services and because school attendance is mandatory until age 16, school districts are in a good position to observe students who have mental health needs and can help direct families to resources, she said.
One of the satisfactions of her job is seeing a student make positive changes during the course of a school year, Fisher said.
“It’s not anything that I necessarily do, it’s the choices that they make. I just give them the information and the platform to express and explore,” the social worker said. “I have a couple of kids right now that I’ve been working with for several months, and they’ve turned their grades around, they’ve turned their peer relationships around, and that, I think, is the most rewarding.”
Published May 26, 2021