Mental Health Education and Support at School can be Critical

A Brief Overview

  • Alarming statistics indicate the pandemic has worsened behavioral health outcomes for young people. Governor Jay Inslee on March 14, 2021, issued an emergency proclamation declaring children’s mental health to be in crisis.
  • Students eligible for special education services through the federal category of Emotional Disturbance are more than twice as likely as other disabled peers to quit school before graduating.
  • These outcomes make adolescence a critical time for mental health promotion, early identification and intervention. Read on for further information and resources.
  • Seattle Children’s Hospital has a referral helpline. Families can call 833-303-5437, Monday-Friday, 8-5, to connect with a referral specialist. The service is free for families statewide.
  • Help is available 24/7 from the Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK.
  • Text HEAL to 741741 to reach a trained Crisis Text Line counselor.
  • For youth who need support related to LGBTQ issues, the Trevor Projectprovides targeted resources and a helpline: 866-488-7386.
  • A place to connect with other families is a Facebook group called Youth Behavioral Healthcare Advocates (YBHA-WA).
  • Family caregivers can request support and training from A Common Voice, a statewide non-profit staffed with Parent Support Specialists who have lived experience parenting a child with mental illness or behavioral health challenges. Contact Jasmine@acommonvoice.org/253-732-4944.

Full Article

Alarming statistics indicate the COVID-19 pandemic has worsened circumstances for young people who were already struggling to maintain mental health. Washington’s most recent Healthy Youth Survey, from 2018, revealed that 10 percent of high-school students had attempted suicide within the year. Governor Jay Inslee on March 14, 2021, issued an emergency proclamation declaring children’s mental health to be in crisis.

The governor’s order requires schools to provide in-person learning options and directs the Health Care Authority and Department of Health to “immediately begin work on recommendations on how to support the behavioral health needs of our children and youth over the next 6 to 12 months and to address and triage the full spectrum of rising pediatric behavioral health needs.”

The Children and Youth Behavioral Health Work Group (CYBHWG) was created in 2016 by the Legislature (HB 2439) to promote system improvement. CYBHWG supports several advisory groups, including one for Student Behavioral Health and Suicide Prevention. The work groups include representatives from the Legislature, state agencies, health care providers, tribal governments, community health services, and other organizations, as well as parents of children and youth who have received services. Meetings include opportunities for public comment. Meeting schedules and reports are posted on the Health Care Authority (HCA) website.

A press for more school-based services

Advocacy for more school-based mental health services comes from the University of Washington’s SMART Center. SMART stands for School Mental Health Assessment Research and Training. The SMART center in 2020 provided the legislative work group with a report: The Case for School Mental Health. The document includes state and national data that strongly indicate school-based behavioral health services are effective:

“Increased access to mental health services and supports in schools is vital to improving the physical and psychological safety of our students and schools, as well as academic performance and problem-solving skills. Availability of comprehensive school mental health promotes a school culture in which students feel safe to report safety concerns, which is proven to be among the most effective school safety strategies.”

The statewide Student Behavioral Health and Suicide Prevention advisory group has recommended widespread implementation of Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS). Through MTSS, schools support well-being for all students through school-wide programming and offer higher levels of support based on student need. Social Emotional Learning (SEL) is a key component of an MTSS framework, which also creates a structure for providing Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) at various levels of need.

The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, the guidance agency for Washington schools, prioritized 2021 budget requests to Empower all Schools to Support the Whole Child, including through MTSS. In January, 2021, OSPI was awarded a five-year, $5.3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education to build regional coaching capacity to support districts in their MTSS implementation. As a local control state, Washington districts determine their own specific policies and procedures.

TIP: Families can ask school and district staff to describe their MTSS framework and how students are receiving support through the various levels/tiers.

Special Education is one pathway for more help

Students may access mental health support through the special education system. Emotional Disturbance is a federal category of disability under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Appropriate support can be especially critical for these students: According to the U.S. Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP), students eligible for school-based services under the ED category are twice as likely to drop out of high school before graduating.

Note that a student with a mental health condition could qualify for an IEP under the category of Other Health Impairment (OHI), which captures needs related to various medical diagnoses.

In Washington State, the ED category is referred to as Emotional Behavioral Disability (EBD). If the student’s behavioral health is impaired to a degree that the student is struggling to access school, and the student needs specially designed interventions, then the student may be eligible for an Individualized Education Program (IEP). Keep in mind that academic subjects are only a part of learning in school: Social Emotional Learning (SEL) is part of the core curriculum. 

An educational evaluation determines whether a student has a disability that significantly impacts access to school and whether specially designed instruction and/or related services are needed for the student to receive a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). FAPE is the entitlement of a student eligible for special education services and an IEP team determines how FAPE/educational services are provided to an individual student.

Behavioral health counseling can be part of an IEP

Counseling can be written into an IEP as a related service. When included in a student’s IEP as educationally necessary for FAPE, a school district is responsible to provide and fund those services. School districts can receive reimbursement for 70 percent of the cost of behavioral health services for students who are covered by Medicaid and on an IEP.

A student with a mental health condition who doesn’t qualify for an IEP might be eligible for a Section 504 Plan. A disability that impairs a major life activity triggers Section 504 protections, which include the right to appropriate and individualized accommodations at school. Section 504 is an aspect of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, a Civil Rights law that protects against disability discrimination. Students with IEPs and 504 plans are protected by Section 504 rights.

Behavioral Health encompasses a wide range of disability conditions, including those related to substance use disorder, that impact a person’s ability to manage behavior. Sometimes students with behavioral health disabilities bump into disciplinary issues at school. Students with identified disabilities have protections in the disciplinary process: PAVE provides a detailed article about student and family rights related to school discipline.

Placement options for students who struggle with behavior

IEP teams determine the program and placement for a student. In accordance with federal law (IDEA), students have a right to FAPE in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) to the maximum extent appropriate. That means educational services and supports are designed to help students access their general education classroom first. If they are unable to make meaningful progress there because of their individual circumstances and disability condition, then the IEP team considers more restrictive placement options. See PAVE’s article: Special Education is a Service, Not a Place.

Sometimes the IEP team, which includes family, will determine that in order to receive FAPE a student needs to be placed in a Day Treatment or Residential school. OSPI maintains a list of Non-Public Agencies that districts might pay to support the educational needs of a student.

A precedent-setting court ruling in 2017 was Edmonds v. A.T. The parents of a student with behavioral disabilities filed due process against the Edmonds School District for reimbursement of residential education. The administrative law judge ruled that the district must pay for the residential services because “students cannot be separated from their disabilities.”

Strategies and safety measures for families

With the release of the Healthy Youth Survey in Spring, 2019, the state issued a two-page Guide to Mental Health Information and Resources to provide more detail about the survey and to direct families and school staff toward resources for support.

Included is a list of factors that help youth remain resilient to mental health challenges:

  • Support and encouragement from parents/guardians and other family members, friends, school professionals, and other caring adults
  • Feeling that there are people who believe in them, care about them, and whom they can talk to about important matters
  • Safe communities and learning environments
  • Self-esteem, a sense of control and responsibility, and problem-solving and coping skills
  • Having an outlet for self-expression and participation in various activities

The handout includes tips for parents and other adults supporting teens who feel anxious or depressed:

  • Bond with them: Unconditional love includes clear statements that you value them, and your actions show you want to stay involved in their lives.
  • Talk with teens about their feelings and show you care. Listen to their point of view. Suicidal thinking often comes from a wish to end psychological pain.
  • Help teens learn effective coping strategies and resiliency skills to deal with stress, expectations of others, relationship problems, and challenging life events.
  • Have an evening as a family where everyone creates their own mental health safety plan.
  • Learn about warning signs and where to get help
  • Ask: “Are you thinking about suicide?” Don’t be afraid that talking about it will give them the idea. If you’ve observed any warning signs, chances are they’re already thinking about it.
  • If you own a firearm, keep it secured where a teen could not access it. Lock up medications they shouldn’t have access to.

State options for behavioral health services and support

For Washington children and youth with Medicaid insurance, the highest level of community-based care in behavioral health is provided through Wraparound with Intensive Services (WISe). The WISe program was begun as part of the settlement of a class-action lawsuit, TR v Dreyfus, in which a federal court found that Washington wasn’t providing adequate mental-health services to youth. WISe teams provide a wide range of therapies and supports with a goal to keep the young person out of the hospital.

Young people under 18 who need residential care to meet medical needs may be referred to the Children’s Long-Term Inpatient program: PAVE’s website provides an article about CLIP.

If a person ages 15-40 is newly experiencing psychosis, Washington offers a wraparound-style program called New Journeys. This website link includes access to a referral form.

The Family, Youth and System Partner Round Table (FYSPRT) provides a meeting space for family members and professionals to talk about what’s working and what isn’t working in mental healthcare. FYSPRT groups provide informal networking and can provide ways for families to meet up and support one another under challenging circumstances.

Federal parity laws require insurers to provide coverage for behavioral health services that are equitable to coverage for physical health conditions. The National Health Law Program (NHLP) provides information and advocacy related to behavioral healthcare access and offers handouts to help families know what to expect from their insurance coverage and what to do if they suspect a parity law violation:

Family Initiated Treatment (FIT) is an option in Washington

Youth older than 13 have the right to consent or not consent to any medical treatment in Washington State. Parents and lawmakers throughout 2018-2019 engaged in conversations about how that creates barriers to care for some teens struggling with behavioral health conditions. The Adolescent Behavioral Health Care Access Act (HB 1874), became law in May 2019. PAVE provides an article about the law and its provision for Family Initiated Treatment.  

Places to seek referrals and information

Seattle Children’s Hospital in 2019 launched a referral helpline. Families can call 833-303-5437, Monday-Friday, 8-5, to connect with a referral specialist. The service is for families statewide. In addition to helping to connect families with services, the hospital is gathering data to identify gaps in care.

PAVE’s Family-to-Family Health Information Center provides technical assistance to families navigating health systems related to disability. Click Get Help at wapave.org or call 800-572-7368 for individualized assistance. Family Voices of Washington provides further information and resources.

Key Resources

For information, help during a crisis, emotional support, and referrals:  

  • Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-TALK)
  • Text “HEAL” to 741741 to reach a trained Crisis Text Line counselor
  • Trevor Project Lifeline (LGBTQ) (1-866-488-7386)
  • The Washington Recovery Help Line (1-866-789-1511)
  • TeenLink (1-866-833-6546; 6pm-10pm PST)

Further information on mental health and suicide:  

Depression and the Autism Spectrum

It is a common misconception that people who have Asperger’s or Autism do not get depression.

In fact this is more common than you think!

Suicidal thoughts are ten times more likely in people with Asperger’s or in the Autism Spectrum.  Survey data was used on 256 men and 118 women who were diagnosed:

66% reported suicidal thoughts

35% reported plans or attempts at suicide

31% reported depression

Depression can be caused by:

Social troubles because you do not seem to fit in

Guilt or regret over past actions/outbursts/meltdowns

Overwhelming feelings and thoughts

Anxiety and Panic Attacks

Miscommunications / Misunderstandings

Fatigue or Tiredness due either to the condition or to medications taken for the condition (e.g.: Ritalin)

Here are some comments people with Asperger’s have made:
(Comments have been made anonymously)

“I have been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome and depression.
My repeated obsessive thoughts turn into that sadness and also when someone gets frustrated with me like my parents. I don’t even know how I feel sometimes. When I can’t learn from my mistakes as fast as everyone else. I feel hopeless because it’s how I’m made to make mistakes over and over without ending.”

“I understand. Repeating the same mistake over and over…I would always forget to leave my coat in my locker at school (because of some rule) and 4 days out of 5 I would forget it. Consistently. And my repetitive obsessive thoughts also turn into sadness, but for me this occurs irrespectively of being yelled at.”

“I have Asperger’s and am high functioning to a degree. I also suffer from depression and anxiety which a lot stems to the fact my circle of friends has drastically dropped since my teenage years, I’m nearly 23 and I don’t go out like most people my age do. Mainly because I socially isolate myself. I find situations arise when I go out, for example…a club I used to go to has very loud bands on Friday nights, I can’t hear my thoughts it screws with my head. It depresses me because when I was younger I had loads of friends, now I’m a social outcast who feels nothing but bitterness and anger towards a lot of society. Al lot of my friends don’t want nothing to do with me anymore. Best friends have come and gone and now I feel alone. I live alone which doesn’t help and rely on Xbox live to chat to people. I just wish sometimes I wouldn’t come out with weird stuff. It freaks me out as well as it does to other people.”

The first step to helping, is by recognizing the signs:

A suicide attempt is rarely made all of a sudden.  It is most common for individuals to shift between the stages on a continuum which range from thinking about suicide to committing suicide.

The stages can go back and forth and are not limited to:

Planning – for example, giving away possessions that were thought of as special to them.

Organizing means – a fascination with a certain weapon that they were not interested in before, for example.

Suicide attempt

Some may start in self harming behavior which can lead to death while the goal is not to actually die.  This is because these individuals may not have actually thought of the consequences and finality of suicide.

Pay attention to:

Statements like “I would be better if I just died”

Threatening to commit suicide

If they are more withdrawn or depressed: not participating in their routine activities, they avoid communicating even more than usual.

Recognizing the signs is even harder when some people with Autism or Asperger’s cannot communicate the conventional way.

Here is how you can help someone who is depressed

People who consider suicide mostly need to know that others do care:

Even if you don’t talk, just being there helps

Let them know that most people think about suicide at one time or another, and thinking about suicide does not mean that things can’t get better.

Listen to what they are saying about themselves and their life

Avoid saying things like “you should be grateful to be alive!” or “You will be fine”

Tell them that you will always be willing to talk and there are others who care

Inspire them to make new friends or contact old friends or even call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline. https://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org/– 1-800-273-8255.  The Lifeline offers online chat, which is a good option when individuals are non-verbal or when social anxiety is high.

If you see that there is an imminent danger of the individual to commit suicide:

If it is an emergency, call 911

Contact outside help or make sure they contact their Doctor

Monitor their temperament and establish a follow up plan when there are changes – the plan can include calling the Doctor, making sure they call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline – https://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org/ or call 1-800-273-8255.

Make sure to remove any means that can facilitate suicide – prescription drugs, weapons, etc.

Most of all let them know that there are always people who are ready to help them.  It is important for them to know that it’s ok to ask for help and let either family members, friends or professionals how they feel.

References:

Synapse, Reconnecting Lives, Fact Sheets:  Depression, Suicide Risk and Autism
Retrieved from – http://www.autism-help.org/family-suicide-depression-autism.htm
Collingwood, J. Suicidal Thoughts 10 Times More Likely in Adults with Asperger’s.
Retrieved from http://psychcentral.com/news/2014/10/13/suicidal-thoughts-10-times-more-likely-in-
adults-with-aspergers/76016.html
Cassidy, S. et al. Suicidal ideation and suicide plans or attempts in adults with Asperger’s syndrome
Attending a specialist diagnostic clinic: a clinical cohort study. The Lancet Psychiatry, 25 June 2014 doi:
10.1016/S2215-0366(14)70248-2
Raja, M. Suicide risk in adults with Asperger’s syndrome. The Lancet Psychiatry, 25 June 2014
Doi:10.1016/S2215-0366(14)70257-3