Indiana youth face mental health crises, declining school performance

Post-pandemic educational performance is declining while adolescents report higher rates of mental health crises such as depression and suicidal ideation, according to a presentation from the Indiana Youth Institute at a Commission on Improving the Status of Children meeting Wednesday.

The commission was formed in 2013 and includes members from the governor’s office, the justice system, state agencies and the legislature.

Taylor Johnson, the policy and data advocacy manager for the IYI, said overall child wellbeing in Indiana ranks 24th in the country. This is an improvement from past years, he said, where Indiana ranked 28th or 29th.

To measure how traumatic events affect children, Johnson used the term “adverse childhood experiences,” or ACEs, to describe instances of abuse or neglect.

Two out of every five children experience an ACE, with one out of every five experiencing multiple ACEs. Hoosiers have a higher incidence of ACEs compared with the rest of the Midwest, Johnson said.

While one ACE may not affect a child, the experiences compound. The more ACEs a child has, the more likely they are to have negative life outcomes like substance abuse or obesity.

In the face of high incidents of childhood trauma, Indiana is seeing a gap in healthcare providers, with many counties classifying as underserved in areas of dentistry, primary care and mental health.

Parents often forgo care for their children as well. From 2020 to 2021, half of parents who chose to forgo care said it was due to difficulty getting an appointment, with another 36% saying cost was a barrier.

Johnson also talked about a lack of adequate support in school, where the ratio of students to school counselors, psychologists, nurses and social workers were behind the national average.

Bernice Corley, a commission member and the executive director of the Indiana Public Defender Council said she saw a lack of support staff when she worked for the Department of Education.

“There are so many schools that do not have…a school nurse,” she said.

State health commissioner Lindsay Weaver talked about positive developments in the effort to improve school support, saying 20 counties have opted in for funding for a school health liaison to fill the gaps.

Another aspect of youth issues was depression and suicidal ideation. According to IYI data, one out of every three students from 7th to 12th grade reported experiencing persistent sadness and hopelessness. One out of seven students made a plan to commit suicide.

The mental health data is even more dire for students who identify as gay, lesbian or bisexual. In 2021, 80% said they were depressed, 65% said they considered attempting suicide and a little over a fifth of respondents said they actually attempted suicide.

Another significant trend from the IYI data was a decline in positive education metrics following the pandemic. These include decreases in IREAD and ILEARN scores, declining graduation rates and college enrollment and a decrease in 21st Century Scholars — the state’s financial aid program for low-income students exploring postsecondary education — where only half of eligible students enroll.

Across the board, these decreases were more pronounced in Black, Hispanic and Pacific Islander students.

Former Indiana Supreme Court Justice Steven David announced at the meeting that the Youth Justice Oversight Committee has voted on recommendations to help divert juveniles from incarceration.

The committee, which David chairs, was established by the legislature in 2022 with the goal of submitting a report by July 2023. The report is supposed to present a plan for juvenile diversion and grants for community alternatives, as well as ideas on how to collect justice data and utilize screening tools.

“Look, we are not going to be able to deliver a thumb drive, right, that every probation officer, every judicial officer, every county can just plug into its mainframe and suddenly have the answers to all of our lingering challenges,” David said. “This is a process. This is a marathon.”

David said all recommendations brought to the committee were passed, many of them unanimous. He emphasized the importance of investing in children in the state.

“Indiana’s children make up less than 25% of the population but 100% of the future,” he said.

By Melissa Meador. The Indiana Capital Chronicle is an independent, not-for-profit news organization that covers state government, policy and elections.