Just prior to the onset of COVID-19, the Idaho State Department of Education asked high school students around the state to participate in a survey to self-assess their emotional health in the 12 months prior to taking the survey.
The result? About 39% of Idaho high school students reported feeling so sad and hopeless almost every day for two weeks or more that they stopped doing some of their usual activities. And 10% of students attempted suicide one or more times.
Today, more than a year since the onset of the global pandemic, youth suicide attempt data collected from 98% of all hospital emergency departments (ED) in the state by the Idaho Division of Public Health indicate many young Idahoans are struggling more than ever with thoughts of self-harm, depression, and hopelessness.
According to the Idaho Emergency Department Suicide Prevention Dashboard, suicide attempts by Idaho children ages 0-12 numbered 104 in 2020, up 17% from 89 in 2019. Through July 2021, the number of suicide attempts by Idaho youth 0-12 was 112 -- already more than the total for 2020.
Among Idaho youth ages 13-17, EDs statewide recorded 674 suicide attempts in 2019, with the 2020 attempt count jumping 14% to 766. Through July 2021, 602 suicide attempts have already been recorded by EDs for Idaho teens.
There is no single, simple solution to solving Idaho’s youth suicide crisis. But early and appropriate intervention is key, says Dennis Woody, a pediatric neuropsychologist with Optum Idaho, the managed care contractor for the Idaho Behavioral Health Plan. Of the more than 370,000 Idahoans eligible for Optum’s mental health care treatment benefits through Medicaid, more than half are under 18.
“We are Number 7 per capita for suicide for adolescents and adults,” says Woody. About 50% of all mental health disorders begin before age 14, and 75% before age 24.
“If you can put a mental health clinician in school, we can get a kid into treatment three years earlier than without that help,” Woody says. “Not only will students get treatment sooner, but they will also get the coping skills to help them resolve the problems that drive them away from school.”
Working with local educators, Optum Idaho launched a pilot program that placed behavioral health care providers on-site at Frank Church High School in Boise and six Idaho elementary schools for 14 months. All were community schools that offer essential health and social supports as well as other services. The goal was to have a clinician at school for a least one day per week.
Trained in trauma therapy, clinician Dani Huddleston saw an average of 25 students weekly at Frank Church High from the start of the pilot program in September 2019 until its premature end in spring 2020, when COVID forced school closures. But even with the shortened timeline, the impact was evident.
“The amount of student resilience is extraordinary, despite the challenges that they have been faced with in life,” says Huddleston. “What surprised me was the students’ willingness to engage in therapy and deal with long-kept secrets. That they were so willing to face some demons.”
School psychologist Amy Rust and her co-workers at Frank Church High embraced help from Optum Idaho. “With a therapist, we have a better shot at healing the wound rather than just putting a Band-Aid on it,” says Rust. “You see these huge shifts with these kids. Their load is lightened.”
Optum Idaho’s pilot program revealed best practices for starting and operating school-based services to address suicide, depression, anxiety, trauma, drug use, and other behavioral health challenges facing Idaho youth. Woody led a team of Optum Idaho specialists in creating a mental health in schools “toolkit” for educators and administrators, providing an overall framework that integrates mental health providers, school staff, families, and other community partners into a single system of support -- and another way to curb Idaho’s youth suicide rate.
“We want to light the fuse and provide direction on how to get started,” says Woody. “The need is more urgent than ever.”
To read the complete case study about Optum Idaho’s commitment to expanding and improving mental services in Idaho schools and more details about the pilot project at Frank Church High School and other Idaho schools, click here.