According to the Center for Disease Control, Arizona is among the states with a high rate of suicide.
According to a study completed by the University of Washington’s Institute for Health for USA Today, Arizona ranked tenth highest out of the 50 states for people with depression.
According to a study provided by the Anne E. Casey Foundation, five percent of teenagers take illegal drugs and alcohol. The same study found that Arizona ranked 28th in “child and teen deaths.”
There is a shortage of psychologists in rural areas across the country.
The ratio of students to counselors in Arizona Public Schools is still 905 to 1.
In a letter to constituents, Legislative District 18 State Representative Mitzi Epstein conveyed the anxiety many in the state face by writing:
“You have probably heard about our shortage of school counselors. Sadly, the problem is not just in schools. “
“Parents tell me, “I’m scared. My teenager is having thoughts of suicide and my insurance stopped covering the care he needs.”
“I’m at my wits’ end. I keep trying to find a counselor for my depression, and when I finally find one the earliest appointment is 8 weeks away.”
“There are no psychologists that are covered by their insurance plan. Or no addiction treatment available, or …”
What can be done to help the state’s children and adults who are suffering through this ordeal?
Bipartisan legislation (SB1468) aimed to prevent suicide in public schools along with a $20,000,000 grant (secured with another bipartisan vote in the legislature) awarded to qualifying schools at the last State Board of Education meeting will help reduce the high student to counselor ratio (and help more children) but it is unclear how much until the final recipients have been determined.
Even with this needed infusion of funding, the ratio will remain too high for the state’s children.
Janine Menard, the Arizona School Counselor’s Association (AzSCA) past board chair, said that “although we have a robust number of certified school counselors, we are unsure of how many will be hired by school districts (with the grant passed by the State Board of Education. There are many factors that will be in-play including if districts will apply for the grant and if they do, what is their priority; school counselors, school social workers, or school resource officers.”
Furthermore, she indicated that most elementary schools do not staff counselors and the roles of these needed positions vary from district to district. While most counselors help children plan for post-graduation and guide them in their social and personal development, other duties like test coordinator or disciplinarian or even substitute teacher can be thrust upon them depending on the district. This along with the increasing needs to pay more attention to the child’s personal and social develop warrant greater amounts of funding than the $20,000,000 grant to retain more counselors, social workers, and school resource officers.
Finally, Ms. Menard believes in order to fully support a well-rounded student, Arizona needs to fix our teacher retention crisis in addition to adding more school counselors. One solution to this problem is all educators are to be fairly compensated.
Along with the instructor staying in the same school, the counselor’s job would become easier as the development of a long-term student success strategy is more attainable, and the children thrive more as a result.
Other avenues to help children and adults are provided by organizations like the JEM Foundation. Founded in 2017 in memory of Jacob Edward Machovsky, a suicide victim, by his parents Denise and Ben Denslow, this organization is dedicated to “prevent suicide, support positive changes to mental health care, provide individual and family support, and remove the stigma that surrounds mental illness.”
The Foundation has, over the last two years, had success, with the help of Representative Epstein and others, of bringing the issues of mental health and suicide prevention to the forefront stating that:
“All health care should be treated equally. There should be no discrimination.”
In the little over two years that they have been in existence, the JEM Foundation has helped people obtain better care and prevent suicide.
According to Ms. Denslow, these achievements include:
- “Creating a support group (called FITT (Families In This Together) which is both online and in-person that is for parents and caregivers of children with mental illness. This is a safe place where they can gain support from us and other parents who understand the challenges of raising a child with behavioral health issues.”
- “Partnering with Gene Sight, a DNA testing company to ensure individuals on medication for their mental illness are given the appropriate medication for them. We have helped over 30 families get this testing and every single family has raved about the changes they have seen. As a result of the testing they found out the child was on the wrong medication and they are now seeing great results now that they are on a different medication. It is a simple cheek swab and Gene Sight is great at getting insurance companies to cover the cost, if not they do have a sliding scale fee. We have also been able to help parents identify a child in crisis and help them get the care they need. We also help parents and caregivers file an appeal with their insurance company if they are denied mental health treatment.”
- “Fighting hard for SB1468 (The Mitch Warnock Act), the school mandated suicide prevention training bill. We started fighting for the training in 2018 and were thrilled to see it pass unanimously in 2019.”
- “Becoming trainers for Youth Mental Health First Aid and will be providing the training to others. We will be assisting Chandler Unified School District with some of their training.”
- Obtaining “bipartisan support for the state parity (health insurance) bill which is huge.”
- “On the day of Jake’s birthday (Oct 27) and the day of his passing, we ask everyone to do a random act of kindness in remembrance of him. We have done this since Oct 27, 2016. This has now become a JEM event in which we have people from other countries join in. It is wonderful to see acts of kindness being performed with Jake in mind. It comforts us to know that others are still benefiting from his kindness. Last year we had a teacher in Switzerland talk of Jake and had her older elementary kids help the younger kids that day as their random act of kindness. It really meant a lot to us.”
Even with these achievements that have helped many, the Denslow’s and other supporters of the Foundation are still fighting to:
- “Enact a state law that would require insurers of some plans that provide behavioral health to treat mental health and substance use disorders equally with physical health.”
- “Make sure people are able to access care when and how they need it.”
- Working on creating a culture where people are not afraid of the “stigma” of asking for help when they need it.
- Providing guidance for parents on the best way to talk with their children when they are having difficulties and in distress.
- Ensure that support groups are available before the situation becomes critical or worse.
- Mandate “depression screenings at physical examinations and annual checkups.”
- Properly “reimburse” behavior health providers at the same rate as general “medical specialists.”
- Adopt “proactive” standard operating procedures for suicide prevention and training so school personnel is properly trained to handle the situation should it arise.
Members of the State Legislature are also taking additional steps to help people in need of greater mental health assistance.
Recognizing that “when people get help for addiction, their life at home and at work gets better; when people get mental health care, their physical health care works better — saving overall health care costs,” Representative Epstein, along with “core groups” like the JEM Foundation, The Council for Human Service Providers, Mental Health America, MIKID, and my Neighbors Council have formed the Arizona Coalition for Insurance Parity.
This group, designed to accumulate information and analysis in order to foster efforts and solutions to reduce suicide and addiction as well as bring more treatment options for mental health patients will meet every two weeks. Other individuals and groups like “ (Legislative District Nine) Senator Victoria Steele, the AZ Psychiatric Association, and American Foundation for Suicide Prevention” have been invited to participate in the discussions.
The caring for those most in need should be among the paramount goals of all engaged in public service.
Bravo to those who are committed to saving the most vulnerable in the state and showing them that they, like everyone else, can have a positive and productive future to enjoy.
Thanks to their efforts, Arizona will become an even more inviting place to live and achieve the American Dream as people enjoy a more positive existence.
Featured Image is of a meeting of the Arizona Coalition for Insurance Parity