After reporting on the suicides of four young men within two years, including three who were Eden Prairie High School students, and learning that suicidal ideation in young women was rapidly increasing, Eden Prairie Local News (EPLN) began working on Silent Struggles in April 2023. EPLN presents an eight-part series on the critical issues surrounding mental health and suicidal ideation through the eyes of survivors, and provides resources available for families, friends, and those who serve our young people in Eden Prairie. Follow our weekly reports at eplocalnews.org. This is Part 3.
Editor’s note: To respect the privacy of students, families, staff, and teachers who shared their stories and insights for this article, some names have been changed or quotes have been attributed anonymously, where requested. An asterisk (*) will be placed by a changed name the first time it is listed.
Skipping class. Not showering. Wearing dirty clothes. Failing tests and missing assignments. Acting withdrawn and taciturn. Sitting alone at lunch. Complaining about stomachaches. Self-harming. Smoking, vaping, doing drugs. Getting into fights. These are just some of the signs that may indicate a student is struggling with their mental health.
Getting straight As. Turning in homework on time. Appearing happy and engaged. Spending time with friends. Being active in sports and school activities. Chatting on social media. Making big plans for the future, including college. These are also signs that a student may be struggling with their mental health.
Make no mistake: our kids are struggling. Some hide it better than others, but the numbers tell the story of rising anxiety, depression, and increased self-harm and suicidal ideation. Statistics are worse for girls than boys and even worse for students who are Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC); Latinx; and Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Gender Diverse (LGBTQ+).
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), one in six American youths aged 6 through 17 experiences a mental health disorder each year. Mental health issues are also manifesting and being diagnosed earlier, with 50% of all lifetime mental illnesses beginning by age 14 and 75% by age 24.
This means we need to be paying close attention to the mental health and social-emotional wellness of not just teens and young adults, but also elementary and early middle school-aged children.
The Minnesota Department of Education‘s 2022 Minnesota Student Survey (MSS), an anonymous statewide school-based survey conducted triennially to gain insights into student experiences, shows that the behavioral indicators of mental health issues among students in Eden Prairie Schools are on the rise.
The sobering statistics for EP Schools students:
- When girls were asked how many times in the past 12 months they had engaged in self-harming behaviors such as cutting, 32% of eighth and ninth graders and 22% of 11th graders said they had done this at least once. For boys, the numbers were 11% of eighth graders, 14% of ninth graders, and 10% of 11th graders.
- The numbers for suicidal ideation were also alarming. For girls, 17% of eighth graders, 18% of ninth graders, and 9% of 11th graders said they had seriously considered committing suicide in the previous year. For boys, 3% of eighth graders, 12% of ninth graders, and 4% of 11th graders said the same.
- When asked if they had attempted suicide in the past year, girls’ numbers were 5% of eighth graders, 4% of ninth graders, and 2% of 11th graders. For boys, these numbers were 1% of eighth graders, 2% of ninth graders, and 2% of 11th graders.
How should these concerning survey indicators be addressed? In best-case scenarios, when kids struggle with their mental health, their challenges are identified in a timely fashion, and they receive helpful intervention and treatment.
In less ideal cases, even when a mental health issue has been identified, there are barriers to getting treatment, whether due to stigma or difficulty navigating a complicated and expensive mental health care system, or the time it takes to get professional help.
In worst-case scenarios, a child’s mental health struggles are not seen or understood until that child has attempted or even died by suicide. Experts say that, unfortunately, the latter two situations are all too common.
In the face of this widespread mental health crisis, it’s imperative to ask, what do we need to understand as a community, as a school system, and as families and friends of young people, in order to help?
What is causing this mental health crisis?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System tracks behaviors that can lead to poor health in students grades 9 through 12. Its 2021 survey showed that young people across the country are increasingly worried about problems in their families, their communities, and the world.
Here are just a few things that kids say make them anxious, fearful, and depressed: school shootings, community violence, racial injustice, civil rights infringement, domestic abuse, substance abuse, food and housing insecurity, climate change and environmental degradation, war and political chaos, relationship troubles, academic stress, bullying, family loss, immigration status, poverty, parental divorce, chronic health challenges, and mental health disorders.
Bearing this psychological burden, students are expected to go to school, behave respectfully, get involved, stay dedicated, and apply themselves to a rigorous academic curriculum. They are asked to work to their highest potential, be a credit to their families and schools, and aspire to achieve the ultimate goal of attending college or pursuing a successful trade and securing a well-paid job.
‘We have not seen the full impact of COVID yet’
On March 16, 2020, students at EP Schools, along with the rest of the state’s students, were told to stay home indefinitely due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As they finished out that school year in distance learning, children could no longer access in-school supports.
The disruptive and debilitating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic are widely blamed for today’s growing mental health issues.
“Children’s mental health is a national crisis,” said Jennifer Britton, chief clinical officer at Washburn Center for Children in Minneapolis. “It was a national crisis years before it was deemed a national crisis. Kids have been struggling for a long time. But the level in which we’re seeing kids struggle has amplified since COVID. And we know with 100% certainty that we have not yet seen the full impact of COVID.”
During the pandemic, some young people had comfortable, safe homes with plenty of privacy and reliable Wi-Fi needed for distance learning.
Others were less fortunate, managing in crowded housing with no privacy and poor Wi-Fi connections that made online learning difficult. Many had responsibilities caring for siblings and the home while parents worked front-line jobs. Some suffered in constant, close proximity to abusive family members or faced housing and food insecurity as caregivers lost jobs.
Starting in the fall of 2020, EP Schools offered hybrid schooling to all students, with the option of learning 100% online or spending three days a week at home and two at school. Still, many students fell behind on key academic targets such as reading readiness and math skills, and missed critical opportunities for social-emotional development.
Laura Eid, a special education teacher at Central Middle School (CMS), said that as a result, many students with mental health issues and other disabilities missed important windows for diagnosis and had significant developmental setbacks.
“COVID absolutely had an impact not just on adolescents, but on everyone,” said Kelsey MacQueen, head counselor at CMS. “And although we are getting back to normal, we have to remember that essentially three years of our lives were totally uprooted.”
Social media: Harmful, but also helpful
Students say social media is integral to staying connected with peers. But it also brings exposure to 24-7 news, disturbing messages and images, and even threats of school violence.
This school year alone, on social media platforms like Snapchat, there have been threats of a school shooting at CMS, videos of a violent brawl circulated widely, and harmful statements that prompted EPHS Principal Nathaniel Gibbs to send cautionary messages to students and families on Oct. 18 and 20.
Gibbs urged students to “remember your posts on social media have an effect on others and leave a mark beyond the moment of the post. On social media, as you would in person, engage each other with kindness, empathy and respect.”
Although the CMS school shooting threats, fortunately, proved baseless, many families said the incident made their children deeply anxious and afraid to return to school. In a subsequent message to the CMS community, EP Schools Superintendent Josh Swanson urged families to “have conversations with your children about social media and their digital citizenship, and actively monitor their online activity.”
Studies show social media can cause negative feelings of anxiety and low self-worth, create pressure to conform socially, and become a platform for hurtful rumors and cyberbullying. BIPOC, Latinx, and LGBTQ+ students are acknowledged to be at the highest risk of experiencing these impacts.
One BIPOC student at EPHS said she has been ostracized in the past simply for not keeping up with social media trends. “It’s definitely exhausting,” she said. “It is so integrated into the social community, and if you fall behind, it’s so hard to get back on track.”
She added that it was important to her to keep up because she struggled to fit in when she moved to EP Schools, having felt ashamed of her cultural heritage and the fact she dressed differently. “I’ve never felt so much like trying to be somebody else till I came to high school,” she said.
Some adults also say social media culture can have the insidious effect of making children think they have mental health issues when they really don’t. “They go on TikTok and it says, ‘Here are 10 reasons why you have anxiety,’ and the kids believe it,” said one EPHS teacher.
Sharon Jones* blames social media for influencing her teenage son to self-harm and consider suicide last year. “Phones make everything worse — it’s horrendous,” she said. “I totally believe that had there been no phone and no negative Snapchat and other social media, this wouldn’t have happened.”
Yet, at the same time, experts and kids say social media can help normalize talking about mental health, reduce stigma, and teach people the language they need to have informed and compassionate conversations. It can also prove helpful to those who may not have realized they exhibit every trait listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) for a mental health condition or disability, which can then encourage them to seek diagnosis and treatment.
Ultimately, the consensus is that since social media is here to stay, finding balance is crucial.
How the crisis is manifesting at school
Teachers, counselors, and mental health professionals at all levels say they are seeing more self-harm, hearing about more thoughts of suicide plans, and seeing increased trauma, depression, anxiety, grief, and social isolation.
“Schools are seeing significantly more social and emotional things coming out in the classroom,” Britton said. “We hear all the time from teachers, ‘I have no idea what to do. How do we even manage the classroom? And how do we attend to academic needs?’” Britton said. This is not because teachers, schools, and districts aren’t trying, she said. “The needs are just way bigger than anyone can meet.”
Suzanne Nieson, a second grade teacher at Cedar Ridge Elementary with 34 years of teaching experience, said she has “absolutely” seen an increase in mental health issues, especially anxiety, for her students.
“I’ve seen trauma and mental health issues for kids for quite some time,” she said. “Do I feel like it’s become more elevated, bigger, and a greater number? Absolutely. I teach 7-year-olds and the trauma and the mood changes that they come with, I didn’t see these issues as often or as extreme in the past.”
She added, “Sometimes I see it in kids who are new to the country and had trauma in that transition. Some kids come from families with mental health issues. But it can be any background, any child, any situation. I can’t always put a why on it and that makes it more difficult. I just know it’s evident daily in the classroom.”
Mary Gallus teaches Academic Seminar to Tier 2 students at CMS who have been identified as needing additional individual or small group support for learning, social-emotional, or developmental needs. Gallus said she has “definitely” seen a higher level of mental health issues, self-harm, and suicidal ideation since COVID-19. “I see physical evidence like cuts, and also, the kids tell me how they are feeling. I feel sad for my students who feel this way. It’s been hard for everyone.”
She added, ”What I notice most is that students are feeling a lack of internal motivation. They say, ‘I just don’t want to do it,’ and therefore there’s a lack of work completion.” But she also sees improvements and success stories. “I see kids being kind to each other, like helping each other with assignments without being asked. Most of them take their education seriously, and they want to be leaders.”
Kari Beutz, an English and theater educator for EPHS and EP Online, said it’s important to keep in mind that although EP Schools is considered by many to be an affluent and well-resourced community, “A lot of people are struggling in different ways. It could be mentally, it could be financially, it could be academically. Everyone is fighting a harder battle than you realize, and everyone has a story that will break your heart if you dig down deep enough.”
‘All behavior is communication’
Teachers note that while some mental health issues are obvious to everyone, others can be invisible or misinterpreted.
Especially for younger kids, tantrums and running out of the classroom can be indications. For older kids, mental health struggles sometimes manifest as verbal aggression or threats, which can be misinterpreted. “It can look like this kid is just being rude or disrespectful, and then it becomes a very punitive kind of discipline focus versus what do they need and where is this coming from,” said CMS teacher Eid.
Other signs are more subtle, like withdrawal, sleeping in class, or simply being quiet. Often, there are no signs at all. “Sometimes, at this age, the kids have learned to hide it, and it’s very inward,” Eid said. “Which is even scarier, because, if they don’t have a person or team with a connection who can help identify the problem, how can you help?”
Eid said it’s important for adults to recognize that “all behavior is communication. What are they telling us? It may not be actual words, but they are saying something.”
Treating mental health concerns of struggling students has to come before academics, Eid says. “Their mental health needs are so acute,” she said. “When something does arise, it’s not something you can put on the back burner. Especially when it’s an identified need, a diagnosed need, it takes precedence over academics. You can have the best class in the world but kids aren’t going to care about learning algebra or geography during a mental health crisis.”
Teachers play a key role in identifying, supporting, referring
Although teachers and counselors are increasingly involved in supporting students who have mental health concerns, it is important to note that they are not mental health professionals and do not have professional mental health certifications.
The district does provide some mental health awareness training, and state law mandates that teachers have four hours of professional development training to recognize key warning signs for early-onset mental illness in children and adolescents. This must include a one-hour minimum of suicide prevention best practices training.
Teachers are also asked to keep tabs on students and reach out to counselors or deans if they are concerned someone is struggling with their mental health or is at risk for suicide. This can put pressure on them and take away from their central focus, to teach content.
Amid these added expectations, “teachers are also struggling with their own mental health,” said one EPHS instructor. “Many are on anti-anxiety meds just so they can come to school.”
Some teachers also say it can be difficult to tell when students are truly struggling or simply experiencing “normal” anxiety, worry, and pressure associated with packed schedules, challenging coursework, and high-demand extracurriculars.
A few EPHS teachers said they have genuine sympathy for students who are “truly struggling,” but sometimes are skeptical when students cite mental health issues as an excuse for late or missing work.
“There’s a difference between anxiety and a genuine mental health crisis and suicidal ideation,” said one. “Telling me you couldn’t do your homework because you’re ‘going through stuff’ isn’t mental health. This teaches kids that it’s an excuse they can use to avoid working.”
Other teachers take a different view.
Margot Cowing, who teaches business and marketing at EPHS, said, “When it comes to mental health, there are so few ways we can really know when or how a student is struggling. Finding the best way to support students is challenging, so if it means I am accepting your work three weeks late, then that’s what I am doing.”
She added, “Even a good relationship with the student doesn’t mean they will confide in you about what’s going on. I would have a really difficult time if I thought something I did was creating extra stress and anxiety. Letting them know you heard them and are willing to make some concessions if they need extra time or support is important.”
Steve Cwodzinski, who taught at EPHS for 31 years and is now a Minnesota state senator for District 49, said that of the 12,000 or so students he taught in his career, he referred only a handful to counseling services. He also said he doesn’t recall receiving training on mental illness or suicidal ideation.
But he still remembers the names of the two students who died by suicide while enrolled in his class. He said he wishes he had said or done something that might have prevented their deaths. “I think the hardest thing in my teaching career was to look at that empty desk and know that the day before they had taken their life, if I had just said (something to engage them), as opposed to them thinking ‘none of my teachers know who I am or care,’” it might have made a difference, he said.
Cwodzinski said that since he retired from teaching, “I’m astounded how many parents of former students of mine have reached out to me because their kid took their life when they were 19, 20 or lost their lives to drug overdoses. I’m just shocked at the anecdotes. A lot of the drugs were self-medication for mental illness. And boy, it’s painful. I just had nine weeks of looking at that empty desk, but I can’t imagine the mom or dad looking across at the chair that’s empty at the dinner table every night for the rest of their lives.”
Erasing the stigma
Despite the strides society has made in normalizing mental health struggles, stigma remains a barrier. Experts say communicating with therapists, family, or peers going through the same thing can help kids realize they are not alone, teach them valuable coping skills, and provide an outlet for concerns.
CMS head counselor Kelsey MacQueen said she sees hope for her middle school students to break the stigma barrier. “Mental health is becoming less taboo,” she said. “Kids are more comfortable talking about it. People before were just hiding in silence not knowing what they were feeling was anxiety or depression. There’s more of an awareness now and that leads to conversation.”
But, therapists and school staff say some families are unwilling to acknowledge mental health concerns or pursue diagnoses, which can prevent students from receiving needed services.
Cultural taboos can be a factor. Several EPHS students of South Asian heritage said that they have struggled to get parents to acknowledge their mental health concerns and allow them to get therapy.
One student said, “I think my parents understood that I had a mental health issue but they didn’t want to believe it. That led them to make some decisions I personally didn’t resonate with. But over time, they became more supportive. Growing up in India, they definitely weren’t exposed to (mental health education). It was completely new to them and they didn’t know how to act.”
The student added, “People need someone they can talk to without being judged or criticized but a lot of people don’t have that. And they have harmful expectations placed on them by people that they love and they don’t know what to do about it.”
While there are success stories, others see their culture’s prejudices as impossible to break. One parent from a non-Western family said, “We can’t share with our family that our child has autism and anxiety. It’s considered a disgrace. It’s such a black mark, we’d never recover from it. You have to be the perfect family. We can’t even visit family, because how would that work?”
Washburn’s Britton said stigma can also be greater for LGBTQ+, Latinx, and BIPOC children. “Our general community is not as welcoming and open to experiences other than normed, heterosexual, white experiences,” she said. “Their rates are higher for suicide, anxiety and depression, and trauma because they’re trying to navigate a world that’s likely not safe for them in some spaces.
“And then they may say, ‘I must be bad, I’m not welcome here, I’m not worthy. If I left this Earth, everyone would feel better. No one would care,’” she said. “Which is unequivocally not true. Every child is loved, and unique, and beautiful, and wonderful, and we should be celebrating all of them. But if you don’t have that experience all the time in spaces where you’re supposed to be loved and held and felt and seen, at school, at home, with your friends, in community, then it creates a different experience.”
How to help? Curiosity, communication, and trust are vital
Experts say it’s vital for adults and peers to tap into understanding and compassion, as well as to educate and inform themselves about the many kinds of traumas faced by kids today.
“What we really need to understand about trauma is that it isn’t about how the external world defines it for you,” Britton said. “It’s really about the perceived impact and disturbance that it’s having on you socially, emotionally, developmentally, relationally.”
Britton emphasized that all traumas, big or little, need to be taken seriously to help kids heal and build resilience. Being dismissive and unsupportive is damaging and unhelpful, but listening, watching, and being supportive can make a positive difference.
For adults wondering how to help a child who is self-harming or expresses suicidal ideation, Britton advised talking and listening without judgment.
“First and foremost, kids need us to be curious in those moments,” she said. “Because if a child says to us, for example, ’I want to die,’ that doesn’t mean they have a means or a plan or an intent. But that’s telling me I need to be curious about what’s happening.
“Are they thinking about a plan? Do they have means or an intent? Those are important questions to ask. Caregivers can engage with kids and use their relationship to say, ‘I’m so sorry you feel that way, help me understand. Is this about how you feel all the time, sometimes, or right now?’”
Britton said not all kids will be receptive. “They may say, ‘I don’t want to talk about it, don’t talk to me right now, you’re the reason I feel bad,’” she said. “But you can say, ‘I hear that you’re struggling and I care about you. As a person who cares about you, I’m letting you know that I’m going to come back and ask.’”
Britton said that parents shouldn’t shy away from difficult conversations. “Parents worry they will make it worse somehow: ‘If I talk about it, am I planting ideas?’ Curiosity is not planting ideas. Curiosity is to help me understand what’s coming up for you,” she said.
Nora Smyth, a Washburn mental health therapist who treats CMS students through co-located services, also stressed the importance of explicitly naming how the child is feeling. “Don’t dance around the language,” she said. “Say suicidal ideation, say self-harm. It’s OK and appropriate to be super real.”
Alyssa Bloom* said her teenager attempted suicide twice during pandemic-era distance learning at EPHS, but responded to interventions and today is thriving and happy. Bloom said if a child says they are struggling, it is critical to take it seriously.
“Don’t think they’re just trying to get attention,” she said. “Sometimes it almost seems like it’s the cool thing now to get therapy or to talk about these things. I’ve even heard from older generations, ‘Ugh, they just want attention.’ But don’t assume that. Because nobody wants to go through this. If I hadn’t taken it seriously, God forbid, I would not have my child today.”
Bloom said that in her experience, after a child has attempted suicide or self-harmed, it can be extremely hard to rebuild trust, and caregivers can suffer extreme anxiety.
Last year, Sharon Jones’ teenage son was self-harming and contemplating suicide. Today, he is doing well, but she still has fears.
“I still sometimes expect the worst,” she said. “Even months later, if I called his name in the house and didn’t hear him answer, I felt sure I would go upstairs and find him dead. It made me feel completely out of control, and I was always expecting the worst-case scenario.
“Ultimately you feel very helpless,” she added. “For me, afterwards, it became like an obsessive compulsion, asking him, ‘How are you feeling?’ every five minutes, and he was getting so annoyed. You need to find a balance, because I realized checking in that often either magnified his bad feelings or made him feel guilty. And then it made him less likely to share how he was feeling.”
Have a safety plan and know what supports exist
Whether a child is currently struggling with mental health or seems completely fine, experts advise everyone to have a safety plan or a plan of action.
Britton said, “I would advise parents to say to their kids, ‘Do we have an agreement that I can come back and ask you more questions? Do we have agreement that if you’re feeling unsafe, I’ll sleep in the same room as you at night?’ Or whatever parents feel like is the right thing for their child. Because there’s no one particular right way to manage.”
Ultimately, Britton said that in relation to suicide concerns, first and foremost, adults should ask the person struggling if they have means, intent, and a plan. Caregivers don’t have to manage alone — mental health professionals can help, and should be asked.
One resource is always the emergency room, which might not feel ideal, but it’s a way to get the person immediate help from a medical professional, Britton said.
Another option is Hennepin County’s COPE mobile crisis unit, which provides phone assessments and home visits for people in crisis 24-7, 365 days a year, by calling 612-596-1223, or by going to their website.
For families with existing therapy or other health service providers, staff are often on call 24 hours a day for help and advice.
Carolyn Kinzel, founder and executive director of Brighter Days Family Grief Center in Eden Prairie, said, “These are two things I tell people to have in their phone all the time. If someone doesn’t have a trusted person to talk to, they can call or text 988, the national number for anyone in crisis. That’s 100% confidential and connects to local support 24-7.”
Kinzel said that, especially for kids, being able to text 988 instead of talk can be incredibly helpful “when you absolutely cannot find your voice, or need support late at night.”
For people who are struggling but are not in crisis, or for people who need to talk through concerns about a loved one, an option is the Minnesota Warmline, which is run by Mental Health Minnesota. The Warmline provides confidential support seven days a week from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. People can call 651-288-0400 (toll-free 855-WARMLINE), text “Support” to 85511, or start an online chat.
In Part 4 of our series, to be published Thursday, Nov. 2, we will explore additional resources available to EP Schools students and their families. We’ll look at the ways in which EP Schools has prioritized student mental health, what financial and staff resources have been allocated to address this issue, and what resources are available in the schools and through referrals.
Editor’s note: This EPLN project is partially funded by grants from the Eden Prairie Community Foundation and the Eden Prairie AM Rotary.
If you or a loved one is in crisis, please call 988, the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, or text “MN” to 741741. Trained counselors are available to help 24/7/365.
If you or a loved one is at imminent risk, please contact 911 and ask for a Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) officer.
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