LANCASTER, Pa. (WHTM) — A survey of students in Lancaster and Lebanon counties found that the number of students at risk for mental health challenges last school year increased from previous years. As the new school year begins, a Midstate mental health professional says it is important for students to pay attention to how they’re feeling and let someone know if they are struggling.

The survey conducted by the TeenHope program at the Samaritan Counseling Center found that 25.5% of screened students were at risk for anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation during the 2021-2022 school year. That’s an increase of 2.5 percentage points from the previous school year.

“Overall, our numbers are the highest they have been,” said Valerie Minnich, TeenHope clinical director and director.

During the 2019-2020 school year, 19% of students screened through the TeenHope program were at risk for anxiety, depression, or suicide. In the 2020-2021 school year, 23% of students screened were at-risk.

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“I think coming out of COVID, we kind of just were like, ‘All right, back to school!’ So we did this virtual experience, and we really tried to keep things moving forward, and then we came back and were like, ‘OK, no adjustments, you have a math assignment, a history assignment, a science assignment, an English assignment, and they’re all due in X amount of days, just like before,” Minnich said. “So that was really stressful for a lot of students that we met with last year.”

Isolation and other challenges of remote learning may have impacted students’ mental health during the 2020-2021 school year, but even with students back in classrooms last school year, the percentage of youth at risk for mental health challenges still increased. Minnich noted that that doesn’t necessarily mean the return to more normal schooling caused the increase, though.

In addition to education stressors students were dealing with, there were political, religious, and other cultural tensions they were feeling last year, Minnich explained. “We’re all experiencing something together,” Minnich said.

Of the more than 2,200 middle and high school students screened by TeenHope last year, 776 students, or 34.6%, reported having some thoughts of suicide or self-harm. “That number is frightening,” Minnich said.

The survey found that girls 14-15 years old had a greater risk of anxiety, depression, and suicide ideation. And, Minnich noted, of the 65 students who identified their gender as “other” rather than “male” or “female,” 62 of them were at risk.

Minnich encourages students heading into the new school year to pay attention to their feelings and talk with a trusted adult if they are struggling.

“If you’re feeling things that are going on long-term like you’re starting not to want to go out with friends as much or engage in family dinners, or things that you once enjoyed are seeming not as enjoyable, this is when we stop and say, ‘Hey, what’s going on? What am I feeling? Is there a specific reason I’m feeling this, or is this just out of nowhere?'” Minnich said.

When students notice these more long-term shifts, Minnich says they should reach out to an adult for help. That trusted adult could be a parent, a guardian, a community member, or a teacher or school counselor, Minnich explained. There are also organizations and services teens can utilize for help.

Adults can help students by encouraging deep and genuine conversation about how they are feeling, and Minnich said adults should know that if a student is struggling, they shouldn’t minimize their feelings, and they don’t have to solve the problem right away.

“Know that there are community supports and professionals out there ready to help navigate any conversation that goes beyond ‘OK’ or ‘fine,'” Minnich said.

If a student seems to be struggling with their mental health, Minnich says an adult can help them find a place to do a mental health assessment, such as with a primary care physician or licensed therapist, and that professional can help them determine the next steps to take.

Last year, Minnich said, “we all were going through something, and so just be mindful of that. What I would want everyone to understand from our results is that we need to all pay attention together and do the work together to help address mental health for all of us.”

TeenHope partners with school districts in Lancaster and Lebanon counties and presents educational information about mental and emotional well-being. Students can opt to participate in a mental health screening, and then they debrief with case managers who can help connect students and/or their family members with mental health resources.