HANOVER COUNTY, Va. -- Emily Rynearson never imagined she’d be taking part in a student-led protest at her Hanover County school in response to mental health concerns.
“I definitely feel we drew attention to ourselves,” the 15-year-old student said. “But we were all looking for more of a change.”
While Rynearson’s decision to protest resulted in a five-day school suspension, she said she did not regret her decision to take a stand on such a critical issue.
“I know the principal, he’s trying to make changes,” Rynearson said. “He’s trying to make us feel more heard.”
Earlier this month, Rynearson and roughly 50 other students staged a walk-out at Patrick Henry High School in the devastating wake of several student deaths over the past year. Losses due to drug overdose and suicide.
With the most recent suicide this fall, Rynearson said students began fearing that anxiety, depression, and concerns about bullying were becoming overwhelming for Patrick Henry students. She said many students, including herself, began questioning whether they could have done more to prevent the tragedies.
“If they just would have had someone right there as their support system, I feel they could have lived to see the day,” Rynearson said.
Mental health problems among children and teens are not just a Hanover County issue.
Last week, a coalition of the nation’s leading experts in pediatric health declared a mental health crisis among children, so dire it’s now being called a national emergency.
The declaration was made by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Children’s Hospital Association, and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, which represent more than 77,000 physicians and 200 children’s hospitals across the country.
“We’ve known of this emergency for two decades, it’s just now found its face and a voice and I’m glad it’s doing so,” mental health expert, Dr. Bela Sood said.
Sood, a child psychiatrist and a professor for child mental health policy at VCU, said the pandemic has exasperated already existing mental health issues for children and teens.
“Suicide rates and suicide attempts have been on the rise, and that’s a big concern,” Sood said.
According to recent data, teenage girls have emerged particularly at risk.
From February 2021 to March 2021, emergency department visits for suspected suicide attempts were up 51% for girls ages 12 to 17, compared to the same period in 2019 according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Pediatric leaders have urged policymakers to invest in more mental health services for young people, including more programs in schools.
“I think it’s really time to acknowledge that children spend 2/3 of the day in the school setting and it is a very natural place where you can seek and access mental health treatment if it’s provided in the right platform,” Sood said.
In 2018, Hanover County Schools became the first school district in Virginia to create a mental health task force.
As a result, the district began integrating programs in schools for suicide prevention and substance abuse awareness.
The district also partnered with organizations such as the Cameron Gallagher Foundation.
Most recently, schools began optional mental health screenings to help counselors identify at-risk students.
Rynearson said while she appreciated efforts by school administrators, she felt students might be more inclined to participate in student-led programs with the facilitation of counselors or other mental health experts.
“Maybe like a few support groups,” Rynearson said. “For flex (time) maybe we could just go and talk for a little bit in groups to be heard, be helped, be understood.”
The U.S. Department of Education recently released new guidance to help schools navigate the mental health crisis using federal funds.
The suggestions included hiring more specialized staff like school social workers and psychologists.
If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (en español: 1-888-628-9454; deaf and hard of hearing: 1-800-799-4889) or the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741.
This segment is sponsored by WHOA Behavioral Health.