HARRISBURG, Pa. (ErieNewsNow) - This week, the Center for Rural Pennsylvania hosted a hearing on mental health in rural schools and discussed the lingering impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Center for Rural PA is a legislative agency of the General Assembly that focuses on rural affairs. 

Testimony at Wednesday’s hearing pointed to alarming statistics among school students.  

“Mental health concerns for students have increased significantly in recent years and those needs have accelerated during the pandemic,” said Michael Pennington, Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency. 

According to 2021 data from the Pennsylvania Youth Survey (PAYS), over 40 percent of students reported feeling sad or depressed most days.  

“This is even higher among rural students than urban suburban at 42 percent compared to 40 percent,” said Pennington, adding that suicidal thoughts and actions have increased as well.  

“For rural students, 19.5 percent, including 22.8 percent of tenth graders and 22.5 percent of twelfth graders considered suicide, and 11.9 percent, including 13.6 percent of tenth graders and 13.1 percent of twelfth graders, attempted suicide,” said Pennington. 

“It's okay to not be okay,” said Dr. Dana Milakovic, Mental Wellness and Trauma Specialist in the Office for Safe Schools at the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE). 

Dr. Milakovic says schools need training and tools on how to help students with mental health.  

“We can't support our youth by saying you have to be happy all the time,” said Milakovic. “When we have schools who are able to talk about mental health the same as they're able to talk about physical health, and being depressed, being sad, needing support is the same conversation as I'm on crutches and I just broke my leg, then there’s no stigma around it,” she added. 

 She says timing is critical as more students struggle to cope with lingering impacts of the pandemic.  

“We know through the pandemic and virtual instruction, our youth have reported on PAYS that they are more depressed, that they're having more mental health concerns,” said Milakovic. “Feelings of isolation, and not feeling like there’s someone there to support you, is a significant contributor to mental health concerns,” she added. 

The challenge is even greater in rural schools, where a lack of connectivity does not help.  

"If you don't have the Internet, or you struggle with connectivity, or to make time with your peers, you feel very isolated,” said Milakovic. 

The hearing promoted promising initiatives like school-based therapy programs launched by health networks throughout the Commonwealth, like the YESS! Program, offered by St. Luke’s University Health Network to schools in their coverage area. According to testimony, YESS! stands for Your Emotional Strength Supported! The program started in 2020 and works to break down barriers for students who’re not able to access mental health services outside of the school day. 

However, things like staffing, reimbursement rates and funding are all still serious barriers that experts say need to be addressed. 

“We just want to be able to continue to be able to offer this service, and I will tell you that right now, we're not even breaking even,” said Jody McCloud Missmer, a Network Administrator in Behavioral Health with YESS! “So I have to justify this program to my hospital, who are very supportive, and they see the downstream impact. But at the end of the day, I have to be able to pay people to do the job,” she added. 

$95 million for School Mental Health grants were included in this year’s state budget. The grants can be used to support early intervention, suicide awareness, counseling services, staff training, and more.