LANCASTER COUNTY, Pa. (WHTM) — The TeenHope program of the Samaritan Counseling Center found that 23% of students screened in Lancaster County school districts are at risk for anxiety, depression or suicide. This is up about 2-5 percentage points from previous years.

Kim Moore, director of TeenHope, says that most years the average percentage of students who show signs of anxiety, depression or suicide is around 16-18% of the screened individuals. In the 2019-2020 school year, 19% of students screened were at-risk.

Isolation caused by COVID-19 likely contributed to the notable increase in students struggling with mental health challenges in the 2020-2021 academic year, says Moore. “What I’ve heard in talking with some of the students after they do the screening is that it’s been a struggle being so isolated,” she says, noting that students miss interacting with their teachers and their peers when doing online learning.

Moore encourages students struggling with their mental health to acknowledge and talk about how they feel. “It’s absolutely OK to feel the things that you’re feeling,” says Moore, “What’s not OK is if you keep things all bottled up inside because that’s when they begin to rear their ugly head in unhealthy ways.”

Moore also suggests students seek out activities that bring them joy or a sense of productivity to fill their free time. For example, she makes a point of taking walks outdoors, and she rediscovered a cross-stitching hobby with which she creates gifts for others.

Teachers and adult family members can model healthy behaviors for students to help mitigate mental health challenges like anxiety and depression, says Moore. They can demonstrate and encourage open conversations about feelings and mental health, “therefore showing students that it’s OK to struggle, and here’s what you can do when you do struggle,” Moore advises.

The TeenHope program screens middle and high school students for signs of anxiety, depression and suicidal behaviors. It currently operates in 19 schools in more than a dozen districts around Lancaster County, although team members were unable to enter all participating schools this year due to COVID-19, explains Moore.

For the program, students fill out questionnaires to assess their mental health. Members of the TeenHope team score the questionnaires and meet with every student to discuss their results and available mental health resources, regardless of whether the student appears to be at-risk. For students whose scores do indicate risk of depression or anxiety, TeenHope members also make contact with their parents or other adults who are able to help.

Moore says that the TeenHope program is looking to expand into more schools around the county, and any assistance from districts, teachers or family members who would like the program in their schools would be appreciated. More information about the program is available on the Samaritan Counseling Center’s website here.

If you or someone you care about is having difficulty in the pandemic or otherwise, please reach out for help. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available at 800-273-TALK (8255). Additional resources can be found on the Pennsylvania DHS website here.