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Students struggling during pandemic, counselors say

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J. Tyler Franklin
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School counselors in Kentucky say students are struggling with an increase in depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts during the coronavirus pandemic.

During a legislative hearing on Tuesday, counselors told lawmakers that it’s not unusual for young people to struggle with mental illness, but the frequency and intensity of symptoms increased over the last year and a half.

Marsha Duncan, a counselor at Larue County High School, said students and staff struggled with the dangers of the pandemic.

“I’ve never seen so many students fearful to be in the school setting and it makes my heart hurt to see fear on students’ faces,” Duncan said.

“So many of our school staff members are in a state of distress themselves: wanting to help, but not really knowing how.”

Last month, Kentucky had the fourth-highest rate in the nation of kids hospitalized with coronavirus, according to data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The Kentucky Department of Education has been holding roundtables to discuss mental health issues in recent weeks, with students also reporting heightened depression and anxiety.

Almost 50 Kentucky teachers and school workers had died since the beginning of the pandemic, including three staff members this school year at Lee County Elementary.

The counselors said some students struggling with the pandemic are showing signs of trauma.

Amy Riley, a counselor at Mercer County Middle School said new trauma-informed teams of counselors and administrators created by the legislature’s 2019 School Safety and Resilience Act have helped.

“And I can tell you the trauma teams are alive, they are active and they are working to make sure that every students’ needs are met,” Riley said.

The School Safety and Resilience Act passed in the wake of the Marshall County High School shooting in 2018 that took the lives of two 15-year-olds. It required schools to boost physical security of buildings and provide more mental health counseling for students.

Rep. Lisa Willner, a Democrat from Louisville, said that bill “showed amazing foresight” from the legislature.

“We didn’t know we were going to enter a pandemic, but this was the school year when those plans were to be introduced and presented,” Willner said.

Nearly all Kentucky students are attending school in-person this year after many spent much of last school year in remote learning. According to a survey conducted along with standardized tests, a majority of students said teachers were available when they needed help during remote learning.

Rep. Regina Huff, a Republican from Williamsburg and chair of the House Education Committee, said people need to take students’ mental health issues seriously.

“This is real. I think that sometimes we get caught with the fact they are children, and how could they be having these experiences?” Huff said.

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