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Area in need of child therapists: Youth often can wait for months for first assessment

BEMIDJI—Help is not always within close reach for youth struggling with anxiety, depression and other emotional issues.

Due to the sheer level of need, as well as a shrinking number of mental health workers, area youth often have to wait an extended time before they can see a therapist. In fact, it's not uncommon for children to be on a waiting list for up to three months before they can receive a diagnostic assessment of the treatment they need.

"We have kids who can't get through their school day," said Wendy Thompson, executive director of Beltrami Area Service Collaborative. "They're going home because their stress level and the depression or anxiety is so great that they can't be in that environment; they can't concentrate on their schoolwork."

There's a handful of agencies in the area that provide mental health services, such as Sanford Behavioral Health, Evergreen Youth and Family Services and North Homes Children and Family Services.

Due to grant funding, those agencies are able to staff therapists directly in the Bemidji schools to work with youth who might not otherwise have sufficient insurance to get treatment. Even with the grant, though, there simply is not enough help to go around.

Although the shortage of mental health workers is felt in the school system, Thompson said it's also an issue throughout the community. Nonetheless, she said having the therapists in the schools is crucial since it helps alleviate the barrier for families who may not have consistent transportation to get to appointments outside of school hours.

According to 2016 data from the Minnesota Department of Education, more than 32 percent of Beltrami County high school juniors surveyed said they have "seriously considered attempting suicide" at some point in their lives. The survey also indicated that nearly 11 percent of the juniors who were surveyed said they had "actually attempted suicide" at some point in their lives.

Thompson clarified that school therapists and staff are careful to triage cases based on the severity of the situation. So, if they know a particular student is struggling with suicidal ideation, that student will not be put at the end of a waiting list.

There's a handful of theories about why the need for mental health services is increasing. One is the persistent issue of drug abuse in Beltrami County. Often, children have been exposed to drug abuse at home. Some of them even have been affected by drugs directly through their mothers who used controlled substances while pregnant.

The persistent drug use goes hand-in-hand with the high number of children in the foster care system. While living in an unsafe home may induce trauma for children, that trauma is often compounded when they have to be placed in the foster care system.

"The schools are just a reflection of the community; if you look at what's going on in the community, it's easy to see why there's an increased need for mental health services in the schools," said Paula Lind, a social worker at Bemidji High School.

As harmless as if may seem at first, professionals also point the proverbial finger at social media for the uptick anxiety and depression levels among youth. Sometimes that's because of online bullying. However, area professionals also say social media contributes to a lack of real, authentic relationships, which can leave youth feeling alienated.

Regardless of why the issue may be getting worse, there's less people to help the situation get better as each of the agencies in town struggles to find and keep talent.

Part of the reason for that lack of workforce is because there's no longer a local source for new therapists. BSU used to have a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor program, but it has since closed. With that program gone, local agencies have had to reach out to therapists in other communities and recruit them into the local area, where the earning potential may not be as high as in larger communities.

"Part of the issue, too, is we have a lot of therapists in the community who are retiring," said Kim Anderson, director of North Homes Children and Family Services.

Jordan Shearer

Jordan Shearer covers crime and social issues for the Bemidji Pioneer. A Rochester native and Bemidji State grad, he previously spent several years in western Nebraska writing for the Keith County News. Follow him on Twitter @Jmanassa

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