Addie Angelov: Will we let the children lead us?

I started my career teaching special education in the ’90s. I taught what was then called self-contained special education. These classes were separate from the rest of the school. They were comprised of children who had been identified as seriously emotionally disturbed via a full psychological evaluation and the implementation of an individualized education plan.

Schools are required to serve students with mental illness under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), a federal law protecting the rights of people with disabilities. If we want to truly address the mental health crisis facing our adolescents, the journey must include K-12 students and schools in a comprehensive way.

In 2023, Indiana had four-and-a-half times more students per psychologist than the recommended amount and 11 times more students per social worker. This shortage of mental health providers is particularly dangerous for children, who are especially vulnerable. According to the Hopeful Futures Campaign, Indiana has one school social worker for every 1,829 students when the recommended ratio is 1 for every 250. Indiana has one school psychologist for every 2,607 students when the recommended ratio is 1 for every 500. Indiana has one school counselor for every 497 students when the recommended ratio is 1 for every 250.

All Hoosier students must attend school for more than 1,500 hours per year and these stark shortages, as well as escalating student mental health needs, make a strong argument for schools being ground zero for the youth mental health crisis.

According to the 2024 Indiana Youth Institute (IYI) Kids Count Digital Data Book:

  • 35.7% of students in grades 7-12 reported in the past year they felt so sad or hopeless for 2 or more weeks in a row they stopped doing usual activities in 2022 — an increase from 34.7% in the last surveyed year, 2020.
  • For all mental health questions in the survey, girls were twice as likely to respond yes.
  • 1 in 10 Hoosier parents reported their child aged 3 to 17 received treatment or counseling from a mental health professional in 2022, which was lower than the nationwide average of 12.1%.
  • Of those children who needed or received mental health care, 1 in 4 parents found it “very difficult” or “not possible to obtain care” for their child in Indiana (27.8%).

The notion that the youth mental health crisis has gotten worse since the pandemic is coupled by the growing costs of not addressing this issue holistically. The Indiana Behavioral Health Commission’s 2022 report said the cost of untreated youth mental illness is estimated to be $139,679,060.76. While this is a big number, it doesn’t include the amount schools are contributing.

As the youth mental health crisis across our state continues to spiral, schools become the place where the rubber meets the road. Schools are often bearing the brunt of covering the costs of the youth mental health epidemic, which have become increasingly more difficult to navigate.

While school costs skyrocket and staff shortages reach all-time highs, many schools are forced to cut programs and run tax referendums in their communities to continue to try to navigate the fiscal impact of providing these services. It also increases the chances for healthy students and staff to become victims of students with documented mental health issues whose behaviors are unable to be contained by schools struggling to address these challenges.

Indiana schools need more than a Band-Aid and a little self-care to get through this growing storm.

In April of 2024, the Bowen Center and the Indiana University School of Medicine released their draft of The Playbook for Enhancing Indiana’s Mental & Behavioral Health Workforce. The draft summarizes the work of numerous professionals and organizations across the state to try to get a handle on the professional shortages in the mental health field. Recommendations include “Securing our Pipeline” and “Grow our own.” To which I respond, yes let’s get after it, but can we please go about it in a way that reflects all the innovation we know can help our youth, schools, and workforce at the same time?

As the mental health workforce shortage barrels forward, we can no longer depend on the traditional methods of workforce development. We have urgent issues that cannot wait for four year degrees to be completed. Every day that we put our eggs in the traditional college basket, our schools and students suffer. K-12 schools and the group of Hoosiers most effected by the crisis offer us the most potential in helping us solve it. We need to consider supporting the very generation most impacted by the mental health crisis, Hoosiers who were adolescents between 2015-2023.

According to the Indiana Office of Work-Based Learning and Apprenticeships, 94% of individuals that complete an apprenticeship program retain their employment, with an average annual salary of $70,000. While the mental health field has embraced the apprenticeship model in the health care setting, school-based mental health apprenticeships simply don’t exist in Indiana … yet. Hopefully, we can find comprehensive solutions for schools and youth navigating the mental health crisis moving forward. We have the collective will and the necessary infrastructure. Most importantly, we have the youth who may be unskilled, but have years of lived experience navigating these waters.

Addie Angelov is a career-long educator and co-founder and CEO of the Paramount Health Data Project. This commentary previously appeared on Send comments to [email protected].