Mankato area students struggle with mental health, reflecting statewide trend

Mar. 18—MANKATO — More Mankato Area Public Schools students reported long-term mental health, behavioral or emotional problems than in previous years, according to the 2022 Minnesota Student Survey, and the district is forming plans to tackle the problem.

The school district included mental health support in its 2023 legislative platform and continues to push for support for its students in its next budget. The district has been reviewing the survey results, released in December of last year, between mid-February and the beginning of this month.

Travis Olson, the district's director of teaching and learning, said the data reinforces the need to support kids with their social and emotional well-being.

"As we come out of a pandemic, we know that kids had challenges just like adults had within our system, so the steps that we take to support our kids are vital," he said.

More than 135,000 students completed the survey across Minnesota this year.

Statewide, 29% of students reported long-term mental health problems compared to 23% in 2019 and 18% in 2016, according to the Minnesota Department of Health. The survey defines long term as problems lasting six months or more.

Mankato students in all age groups surveyed on the topic reported an increase in long-term mental health challenges.

This year in the Mankato district, 26.3% of 520 eighth graders said they had long-term mental health, behavioral or emotional problems. That's an increase from the 2019 survey when 20.9% of 502 eighth graders reported such problems.

Meanwhile, 26.6% of 459 ninth graders reported long-term mental health problems compared to 19% of 526 ninth graders in 2019.

And 33.8% of 390 11th graders reported mental health struggles compared to 24% of 405 11th graders in 2019.

Fifth graders, who also take the survey, were not asked the question.

Olson said the need for support is apparent as they look at how the district's results compare to the state's.

"We see a similar need to continue to provide support for kids for their mental health and well-being," he said.

He added that the school district often goes back to the data in planning for the future.

"As far as commitment to the future right now, we're going through identifying what that might look like for the coming year. Our budget isn't set yet, but we know that in developing those plans, supporting our kids — and our School Board is right there with us — in the school district as educators and prioritizing that is highly important," he said.

Experts in the community are also reflecting on the implications of increased mental health challenges.

Minnesota State University-based Center for Rural Behavioral Health's director, Thad Shunkwiler, said it's no surprise there's been an increased number of students reporting long-term mental health challenges after the pandemic but added that mental health concerns were a problem before COVID-19 as well.

"We have to look at why are our young people feeling so overwhelmed? Why are they so isolated? That really stood out to me in reviewing the statewide data is how many young people feel isolated and alone, and how do we help them reconnect in a meaningful way with one another and within our community?" he said.

Shunkwiler added that addressing the growing mental health needs in the community involves both more support services and teaching strategies to younger generations.

"It's really a two-pronged approach where we're tending to the issues that are already there and our students are telling us, but at the same time, we're trying to teach resilient strategy to our youngest," he said.

Shunkwiler added that the Minnesota Student Survey gives a platform for students to be heard.

"These are students who are saying, 'I need help.' We as the adults, whether that be school administrators, health care professionals or parents, as adults we need to be able to listen to those young people," he said.

Patrick Bigaouette, a psychiatrist at Mayo Clinic Health System in Mankato, is also a committee member on Greater Mankato Area United Way's suicide prevention committee, which was started this year.

He said the data from the survey demonstrates just how significant the mental health crisis is and the number of students who are suffering, adding that one thing that stood out to him were the rates of suicidality.

Reports of suicidal thoughts jumped statewide, according to survey results. Reports of 11th graders who considered suicide at some point in their life increased to 28% in 2022, compared to 24% in 2019 and 23% in 2013, the MDH data said.

"A big thing that we can use in Mankato where we are a more rural area and there may be fewer resources is looking at mental health programming," he said. "I think the next steps are continuing the work that the suicide prevention task force is doing."

Bigaouette said programming like the committee helps to both bring awareness and recognition to the issue and also decrease the stigma of mental health.

Meanwhile, Minnesota students also reported healthier behaviors around commercial tobacco, alcohol, drugs and sexual activity in 2022.

In the Mankato district, at least 90% or above of respondents in eighth, ninth and 11th grades said no to using conventional tobacco products in the last 30 days, no to using any tobacco products including e-cigarettes in the last 30 days and no to frequency of binge drinking in the past year.

Shunkwiler said while it's a positive of the survey, it's important to keep an eye on the numbers over the next few years.

"Before we clap our hands and pat ourselves on the back for that work, I think it's important to recognize that the majority of young people who use and abuse chemical substances get them from school, so this survey was taken at a time in which most young people were not attending school in person," he said.