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Survey: Pressure takes toll on teens

FAIRMONT — The 2019 Minnesota Student Survey results were released recently and show that fewer students report good health or feel safe.

“The new data also shows more Minnesota students than ever report having long-term mental health, behavioral or emotional problems,” the report states. “This number is up from 18 percent of students surveyed in 2016 to 23 percent in 2019.”

The survey is given to students in grades 5, 8, 9 and 11 at Minnesota schools. Students respond voluntarily. More than 170,000 students participated in the 2019 survey.

Caroline McCourt, coordinator of the Statewide Health Improvement Program for Martin, Faribault and Watonwan counties, said it is not mandatory that schools give students the survey. She said several in Martin County opted out, but Fairmont Area and Granada-Huntley-East Chain did not.

McCourt wishes all schools would give students the survey.

“It gives you a good snapshot over time of what’s happening in that district or in that county,” she said.

“It’s so important to get this information from our students so we can help them be healthy in a complete way,” agreed Steph Johnson, director of the Martin County Substance Abuse Prevention Coalition.

Minnesota Education Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker said, “The results of the Minnesota Student Survey show a number of concerning pieces of data, including student vaping and declines in mental health.”

Twenty-seven percent of juniors at Fairmont High School reported long-term mental health, behavioral or emotional problems. Just 20 percent reported being treated for such problems. Stress and mental health problems have been proven to cause an increase in drug and alcohol use in young people, as it is used as a coping mechanism.

“If we can help educate people on finding healthy ways to cope and deal with stress it can really be helpful,” Johnson said.

McCourt said SHIP cannot focus directly on mental health, but can address the issue through healthy eating and promoting physical activity throughout the school day.

This tactic is supported by Minnesota Health Commissioner Jan Malcom, who said, “Research tells us sleep; exercise; nutrition; mindfulness; a safe and nurturing environment; and caring adults can help youth thrive and avoid risky behaviors like vaping and recover from toxic stress.”

As McCourt and Johnson both point out, discussions on mental health are much less taboo than they were even several years ago.

“I think our schools are really trying hard to let students know that they have other options and they’re trying to teach them some,” Johnson said.

Fairmont Elementary School also offers a before- and after-school walk-and-talk program. The elementary just this year incorporated calming breaths into the start of the school day. Mindful caddies are in grades 3-6 classrooms. The goal behind these initiatives is to help students find healthy ways to deal with stress at a young age.

Fairmont High School has 22 sports and offers more than 40 clubs and activities for students. If students need a mental health break, they can utilize wellness rooms to de-stress. In addition, there is a stress management and wellness document on the school website that is filled with resources. The document was compiled by support staff, including the dean of students, school nurse, guidance counselors and school social worker.

When asked if they have noticed more students with mental health problems, school social worker Michelle Thompson was quick to say she believes they are talking about the topic more. School guidance counselor Jenny Schwieger said social media and technology factor into the increase in mental health problems in young people.

“The majority of the kids are coming down saying they need to go to the health center, and then we find that it’s more mental-health related,” Thompson explained.

There is one psychologist available at both the elementary and high school.

Schwieger said many of the support staff members have been trained in mental health but are not therapists. However, they can help connect families to resources, including therapists and mental health services.

“The goal in all of this is to take care of any mental health problems so that students can focus on learning,” she said.

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