Analysis: To solve a student mental health crisis, we need to get serious about measuring it

The education world loves metrics. But Idaho is short one yardstick.

Idaho doesn’t have a clear method of measuring school mental health issues. The best anyone can do is cobble together some mismatched statistics that suggest the problem is getting worse — and quickly.

The State Board of Education heard this grim assessment Tuesday, during a brief but powerful presentation shoehorned into the tail end of an all-day meeting on the University of Idaho campus. A panel of college and university administrators delivered a simple, straightforward message. The state can’t fully look at academic performance — and the obstacles to student success — without staring straight into the eye of mental health.

Andrew Hanson, vice president for student affairs at Lewis-Clark State College, addresses the State Board of Education Tuesday. (Photo from University of Idaho video stream.)

“If somebody is feeling so dissociated, so lonely, so depressed that they’re not even sure they want to live, getting them interested in learning more about mathematics or any other subject is almost impossible,” said Andrew Hanson, vice president for student affairs at Lewis-Clark State College.

The numbers, such as they are, paint an alarming picture. Here are a few snapshots:

  • Boise State University reported 8,162 “counseling encounters” during the fall 2022 semester. This number has doubled over the past five years.
  • Lewis-Clark has seen a similar spike: 2,804 face-to-face counseling appointments last fall, compared to 1,501 just four years ago.
  • The caseload at Idaho State University is increasing in number — and in severity. Last fall, more than 43% of students who came in for a counseling appointment said they had “seriously considered” suicide.
  • At the College of Southern Idaho, 97% of students who sought counseling reported feeling depression or anxiety, up from 62% the previous school year.

Administrators said they were handling the surge as best as they could, by providing short-term treatment for students who need less intensive counseling. The U of I has hired four or five case managers to shoulder these cases, said Blaine Eckles, dean of students and vice provost for student affairs. Those hires have helped, to a point.

“But our counselors are being overwhelmed with the high-acuity individuals, ones that need to go to the hospital,” Eckles said.

The surge isn’t all COVID-related. Numbers were increasing before the pandemic, and the ubiquitous nature of cell phones and social media have certainly fueled the trend. And mental health problems don’t just spring up when a student arrives on a college campus.

“It is clear that this is a pipeline problem,” Hanson said. “It is a K-20 issue.”

And, by definition, a job for a State Board of Education that prides itself on setting education policy across the K-20 system.

Much of the job would fall to state superintendent Debbie Critchfield, who is elected to oversee Idaho’s K-12 system and who has an automatic seat on the State Board. Critchfield missed Tuesday’s presentation; she left the board meeting early for a family trip that began Wednesday, spokesman Scott Graf said. She said the numbers weren’t surprising, and point to a statewide challenge.

“It’s been clear for some time that the state of our young people’s mental health is an emerging issue and one that is affecting education in Idaho,” Critchfield said in a statement Thursday. “I’m pleased that we are continuing to have this discussion across the K-20 system and looking forward to the partnership with higher education.”

This discussion won’t be easy or comfortable, and that was readily apparent Tuesday.

Outgoing State Board President Kurt Liebich called the presentation “about as sobering as it gets,” after an awkward attempt to break the tension. He said the mental health discussion almost made him want to go back to talking about K-12 funding — and an enrollment- vs. attendance-based formula debate that has bedeviled the State Board for years.

The thing is, there was a little bit too much truth in Liebich’s offhand remark. State Board members have spent countless hours talking about the funding formula. They even discussed the topic again this week. Not to dismiss the importance of figuring out where education dollars should go — and why — getting a handle on student mental health is going to take time and energy and some refocused attention.

And that’s not the half of the job.

Along the way, the State Board will probably have to confront hard political realities — and policy decisions that make it harder to measure and address mental health problems.

In search of K-12 mental health data, the college administrators turned to the 2021 State Department of Education’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey. But Idaho opted out of the 2023 edition of the survey, amid Statehouse backlash over questions about sexual behavior. And a new Idaho parental rights law, endorsed by Critchfield, requires parental opt-in for any surveys that address K-12 students’ “mental or psychological problems.”

On Thursday, Critchfield said the SDE is “analyzing the usefulness” of the Youth Risk Behavior Survey, and suggested there might be other ways of getting a handle on K-12 mental health issues. “We have students, parents, teachers, counselors, and administrators telling us about these issues in real time. The best data is talking with these groups and visiting our schools.”

And when State Board members started asking about possible mental health solutions Tuesday, Rick Pongratz touted outreach. Idaho State’s director of counseling and testing services said the university has invested heavily in student activities — hoping to get students off their smartphones and help them find places where they fit within their campus community.

“Those aren’t just throwing parties for students,” he said. “Those are mental health interventions.”

That all sounds innocuous, until you consider this. Any student activity — an attempt to help build a sense of belonging — starts to get dangerously close to what conservative lawmakers would label “inclusion.” Legislators inserted language into this year’s higher education budget, banning the four-year schools from using state dollars “to support diversity, equity, inclusion, or social justice ideology as part of any student activities, clubs, events, or organizations on campus.”

Language like that could turn any student activity into a potential test case. And it might make college officials think twice before organizing such an activity, even if they have every reason to believe it would benefit student mental health.

Idaho education tracks kindergarten reading scores and absenteeism and college go-on rates, and pretty much everything that happens in between. Now, the state needs to do better at quantifying a student mental health crisis.

And collecting data that could lead to solutions.

Kevin Richert writes a weekly analysis on education policy and education politics. Look for his stories each Thursday. 

More reading: How Boise State University is using a student fee increase to beef up counseling services.

Kevin Richert

Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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