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Hawaii teens report persistent mental-health problems

Honolulu Star-Advertiser - 2/11/2024

Feb. 11—Hawaii public school officials hope lawmakers will support their requests at the state Legislature for 20 full-time educational psychologists

More than one-third of Hawaii's public high school students in a survey reported that they had felt sad or hopeless almost every day for two or more weeks in a row in the prior 12 months, and one-fifth of the high schoolers surveyed said they purposely hurt themselves without wanting to die.

Data like these, Hawaii public school officials told a state Board of Education committee last week, are why they hope the board and state lawmakers will support their requests at the state Legislature for 20 full-time educational psychologists, and funding to extend certain summer programs and other mental-­health programs for students and staff after federal pandemic aid expires Sept. 30.

The findings also point to the importance of increased mental-health care, especially for Lahaina students and school staff, which is referenced in a report by the state House of Representatives interim working groups focused on the aftermath of the August wildfires, state schools Deputy Superintendent Heidi Armstrong told board members during a meeting of the board's Student Achievement Committee.

"We continue to see as part of the Youth Behavior Risk Survey that students still struggle with sadness, hopelessness and along the range of even suicide ideation, and often need someone that they can receive support and help from, " Fern Yoshida, administrator of the Student Support Section in the state Department of Education, told board members during a committee meeting Thursday.

"Our theory of action is that if we build the capacity of educators to implement a layered system of integrated supports, then we equip our schools with that array of services and supports so that we can identify the students that need help, and provide them with the interventions that they need so that they can be successful in school, " Yoshida said.

Armstrong said in a memo to the committee that according to the Hawaii Youth Risk Behavior Survey for 2021, the latest date for which the data was available :—34.8 % of high school students felt sad or hopeless almost every day for two or more weeks in a row so that they stopped doing some usual activities in the past 12 months ;—22 % of high school students purposely hurt themselves (examples : cutting, burning ), without wanting to die, in the past 12 months ; and—55.7 % of high school students never or rarely got the kind of help they needed (among students who reported having felt sad, empty, hopeless, angry or anxious ).

The Youth Risk Behavior Survey is a joint project between DOE, the state Department of Health and the Curriculum Research and Development Group at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. The 2021 survey is the most recent data presented on the Hawaii Health Matters website of the Hawaii Health Data Warehouse and the Department of Health.

Of the plethora of factors that can negatively affect teens' mental health, the top five named by high school-age children in a separate survey reported in October 2023 by the EdWeek Research Center were "Stress related to finishing schoolwork /homework, " "Grades /test results, " "Concerns about my physical appearance, " "Anxiety over societal issues /news " and "Concerns about how I am perceived by others."

Board member Lauren Moriarty said during the committee meeting that persisting mental-health issues over years among Hawaii's students makes it hard to assess the effectiveness of DOE's programs.

"How can we have some sense of whether in fact we are making progress, whether in fact what we're doing is the right thing and we're moving in the right direction ?" Moriarty said.

Armstrong responded, "I don't know if we're ever going to get to 100 % of good feelings. We're working with children who come to us experiencing life, right, and life has its ups and downs."

She added that in other DOE surveys, most students indicate that "we are providing support when kids have those issues, so they do feel like they belong. They do feel like their teacher cares about them. They do feel like they can ask questions and get help at school."

Of the roughly $198 million in general funds that the BOE asked for in its supplemental operating budget request, Gov. Josh Green included about $102 million in his executive supplemental budget to the state Legislature.

Among mental health-­related items left out were $21 million requested to continue summer programs for 25, 000 students, which have been funded since summer 2021 by the federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, a form of pandemic aid that ends Sept. 30.

A $1.8 million request to add the equivalent of 20 full-time educational psychologists, and $1.7 million to extend mental-health support services through a mobile application also were not included.

The app is needed because "not all students needing or wanting support will display risk factors enabling identification, " a DOE budget impact statement said. "Additionally, some students may only request help if they are able to do so anonymously or on their own terms."

Armstrong said the DOE has several ongoing initiatives to identify and respond to students who need mental-health help.

The main ones are the Hawaii Multi-Tiered System of Support, in which "students are provided universal, targeted, and intensive support for well-being and mental health based on their needs "; and "Here to Help, " a multiyear plan to train and coach staff to support students in mental health.

A recent survey found that 100 % of Hawaii elementary public schools, 88 % of middle schools and 75 % of high schools have a social-­emotional learning program or curricula in place for students, for a total of 87.5 % of DOE schools overall, Armstrong said. About 65 % percent of 160 schools surveyed said they integrate social-emotional learning into instructional practices and pedagogy, and 48.7 % indicated that they use strategies to strengthen social-emotional learning in adults.

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