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This blog post is part of an ongoing series on teen mental health during the pandemic, which features perspectives from leaders at BayCare Health System, the Hillsborough County School District, Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital, and others.

Before the pandemic, depression, anxiety and other mental health disorders were already on the rise in children ages 6 to 17, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Youth suicide, for example, has been on the rise for the past decade to become the second leading cause of death for 15- to 24-year-olds. In fact, prior to the pandemic, many mental health experts were extremely concerned about the rising trend of teens needing mental health treatment.

Since the pandemic began, the mental health needs of teens, as well as the concerns of experts, have only become more pronounced. Most agree the pandemic has magnified a long-simmering student mental health crisis. Actually, some are calling this national trend of more students needing mental health services since the pandemic began as “the epidemic within the pandemic.”

National trend evident in Hillsborough County schools

The national trend is evident in Hillsborough County schools, says Elizabeth Tanner, Psy.S., Supervisor of Emotional Wellness, Climate and Culture for the county’s school district. Tanner is a school psychologist who supervises the district’s mental health plan.

“The number of referrals from the district’s mental health team for needs such as therapy, evaluation and case management has jumped since COVID-19,” Tanner said. This number is includes increases in referrals to counselors inside the schools as well as to mental health professionals outside the schools. “We are referring an average of 45 to 50 families a week for services, which is higher than our numbers during the fall,” she said.

It’s also important to note that not every student referral for services is generated from the mental health team, which means the actual number of students needing help is probably even larger.

Educators are key to protecting student mental health

The Hillsborough County School District understands that educators are key to protecting student mental health during the pandemic. Teachers, who are on the front lines, are ever-mindful of precursors to student mental health distress, which could explain part of the uptick in referrals.

“We feel the more proactive and preventative we are with assisting families overcome barriers to receive services, the less likely the student will be in a crisis,” Tanner said.

Tampa Bay Thrives brings new resources in the Tampa Bay area

Tampa Bay Thrives is an innovative nonprofit that will help people who are having mental health and substance use issues find the help they need. The services, which will begin over the summer in a Hillsborough County pilot, will focus on navigation as well as awareness that there is no shame in seeking help. Hillsborough County Public Schools Assistant Superintendent Tracye Brown serves on the Tampa Bay Thrives board of directors.