Tip line on school threats instead reveals student mental health needs

Andrew Goldstein
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (TNS)

A tip line set up to detect threats of violence and intimidation in schools has unexpectedly turned up a majority of reports about students suffering from mental health issues.

A report released Wednesday by the Pennsylvania Attorney General's Office said nearly three out of every four calls to Safe2Say Something PA, an anonymous reporting system for schools, were focused on mental illness, self-harm, discrimination and harassment, or instances of bullying.

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The report called on the state to ensure that every school across the state has a mental health counselor and was published hours before Attorney General Josh Shapiro participated in a roundtable on the same topic with students and officials from the North Hills School District.

"What's clear is that the need is real, it is great, and we have to meet these students where they are and give them the help that they need," Shapiro said following his time with the students. "For me to hear from these young people about these issues just confirms what we've known: that mental health, especially among our young people, is a crisis, and it needs to be addressed."

Since the Safe2Say line was launched in 2019, the report said, nearly 73% of all calls have focused on instances of bullying, suicide and self-harm, mental illness, or discrimination and harassment.

The percentage of calls to Safe2Say regarding "life safety" matters — where the immediate physical well-being and safety of a student may be at risk  rose from 15.7% in 2019-20 to 20.3% in 2020-21, according to the report. In addition, the report said that in 2020-21, 32% of calls were for bullying or cyberbullying, 30% were for suicidal thoughts, 20% were for cutting and self-harm, 12% were for anxiety and depression, and 2% were for anger.

Shapiro acknowledged that there was a "pivot" from Safe2Say's initial purpose for reporting threats of violence in schools, though those calls do still come in from time to time.

But when his office received the data, he said, it wanted to use the findings "to not just address the student in need in that moment, but to try and address some of the broader policy issues, try and address some of the broader health care issues that need to be fixed."

FILE -Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro speaks with members of the media during a news conference, in Philadelphia, Tuesday, March 15, 2022. A massive Republican primary field for governor in Pennsylvania is spurring growing discomfort among party leaders that a widely splintered primary vote could produce a winner who cannot beat Democrat Josh Shapiro in November's general election.(AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)

The number of calls to Safe2Say actually went down when COVID-19 hit, which Shapiro attributed to students perhaps thinking that since schools were closed, the line was also down — a false assumption. Calls increased again as schools began to reopen.

Shapiro said he has petitioned the governor and Legislature to work together to provide adequate funding so that schools can meet their students' mental health needs.

The report said that the National Association of School Psychologists recommends a ratio of one school psychologist for every 500 students. In Pennsylvania, however, there is one school psychologist for every 1,078 students, according to the report.

Closing that gap, the report contends, is one of the best ways to help improve the health and safety of children.

"In order to respond to the ongoing mental health needs of Pennsylvania's young people, the commonwealth should establish sustained, broad support to place mental health counselors in every Pennsylvania school, with a focus on early intervention and preventive care," the report said. "Hiring more counselors to serve our children will provide needed support for students and improve both school safety and educational outcomes."

The findings of the report echo much of the recent data on youth mental health prior to and during the pandemic.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that many teenagers suffered emotional abuse at home during the pandemic, leading to further mental health issues, according to NBC News.

A nationwide survey of 7,705 high school students conducted by the CDC in the first half of 2021 built on earlier findings of high levels of emotional distress, with 44.2% describing persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness that prevented them from participating in normal activities, and 9% reporting an attempt at suicide. It also found high rates of reported abuse, with 55.1% of teenage respondents saying they suffered emotional abuse from a parent or another adult in their house in the preceding year, and 11.3% saying they suffered physical abuse.

U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy issued an advisory in December that said before the pandemic, up to one in five children aged 3 to 17 in the U.S. had a mental, emotional, developmental or behavioral disorder. From 2009 to 2019, the share of high school students who reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness increased by 40%, to more than one in three students.

The surgeon general said the pandemic only increased those numbers.

"The COVID-19 pandemic further altered their experiences at home, school and in the community, and the effect on their mental health has been devastating," Murthy said in a statement. "The future well-being of our country depends on how we support and invest in the next generation."