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With youth mental health issues increasing, more northern Michigan schools bring in therapists

When his school closed last fall because of COVID outbreaks, then 15-year-old Liam Dreyer settled into his virtual learning environment at home.

He adjusted, but it wasn’t easy for all his classmates.

“They have their mother making their lunch behind them, and their dog barking and when they try to answer a question, it’s just chaos behind them,” Dreyer says.

Away from their peers and isolated at home, he noticed some were struggling mentally.

“When you see the opportunity ahead of you and you think, ‘oh by this date I’m going to be able to hang out with my friends.’ And just like that it gets pushed back two more months. That is crushing,” Dreyer says.

Licensed therapist Amanda Rothfuss says those feelings are common among young people.

“For adolescents it’s really difficult because the way they feel in the moment is the way they think they’ll feel forever,” she says.

Rothfuss says COVID has been really tough on kids but mental health has been a problem for many, long before the pandemic.

Nearly 20% of Michigan youth have been diagnosed with depression, anxiety, or ADHD, according the Citizens Research Council of Michigan. And over the last decade, the number of young Michiganders experiencing a major depressive episode has increased by 83%.

Report suggests solutions for mental health shortages in northern Michigan.

Experts aren’t exactly sure why, but they point to social media, gender identity and sexual orientation issues, and an overall changing society.

But there is some support available for students. A model that offers behavioral health services on school grounds is multiplying in northern Michigan.

At Harbor Springs Middle School, Rothfuss says students can now step away from music class or tutorial period to get help when they need it.

She offers several forms of counselling, including cognitive behavior therapy, which targets students’ negative thought patterns. Rothfuss also hosts group therapy sessions, where students share their common struggles.

“The person sitting next to me in math class is also feeling and going through the same thing that I am,” she says. “It creates a sense of community that I think students find very beneficial.”

Therapists like Rothfuss are embedded in Harbor Springs Middle because of a partnership with the Health Department of Northwest Michigan.

The department’s collaboration with schools has grown rapidly over the last two years, from just a handful to now, 22. Recently, they were awarded $5 million to keep expanding.

If the health department doesn’t provide mental health services at school, it’s likely students won’t get them at all. There are few behavioral health providers in northern Michigan and most counties have no child and adolescent psychiatrists.

Plus, the need for youth mental health services will be even greater post-pandemic, Rothfuss says.

“We’re seeing families who have lost, maybe a loved one to COVID, or experiencing financial hardship, unemployment, strained relationships in their household,” she says. “All of this has an impact on the children. There’s sort of a trickle down effect.”

Harbor Springs Middle School Principal Heather Keiser says the mental health program has been a big benefit to students since it opened in January 2020.

She says there is still some stigma about getting help for a mental health issue. So, Keiser tries to make the two school therapists a normal part of the school environment.

“They’re visible,” she says. “The students see them, interact with them during recess time or in the hallways. It’s not a scary person behind a closed door.”

More schools are beginning to offer programs like these. All counties in northwest lower Michigan — except Benzie and Leelanau — now have mental health counsellors in at least one school district.

Taylor Wizner covers heath, tourism and other news for Interlochen Public Radio.