First Lady Jill Biden and U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy talk about mental health with students during a visit to Westfield High School on Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2023. (Casey Smith/Indiana Capital Chronicle)
Students’ mental health was top-of-mind Wednesday for First Lady Jill Biden, who traveled to Westfield High School to speak with students and counselors.
Biden visited the suburban public school just north of Indianapolis alongside U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy.
Their two-hour stay included a presentation from students in the school’s student mental health club. The First Lady and Murthy also participated in a roundtable discussion with Westfield administrators to discuss how the school — and Indiana, overall — are taking advantage of federal dollars to support students’ mental health needs.
“There is resilience in finding a way out of darkness, through treatment, through community, through storytelling, and holding our hands to pull others through. And families and educators are working to support them every step of the way,” Biden said while speaking before a group of Westfield students and staff. “I think that you can feel that there is a sense that people can share their stories and get help. That’s what’s happening here.”
Federal funding in action
The visit came one year after President Joe Biden signed the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act (BSCA), marking the most sweeping and significant gun legislation to become law in decades.
The legislation also included historic levels of funding to address youth mental health. Close to $2 billion was earmarked for the U.S. Department of Education to create safer, more “inclusive” learning environments for students and hire and train more mental health professionals for schools.
Through the BSCA, Indiana has so far received over $14 million in Stronger Connections grant funding.
Some of that funding is already being used by the Westfield school district to make available on-site outpatient mental health services to students.
“Never underestimate your power to help, to hope, to heal,” Jill Biden told students on Wednesday. “You’re shining a light in the darkness, helping so many find their way through.”
“It’s okay not to be okay — you are not alone,” she continued. “You shouldn’t have to face the rough edges of life, of this world, by yourself. There are people around you, educators and peers, who want to listen and who are there to support you.”
Ongoing student mental health needs
Mental health resources for Hoosier students are in increasing demand.
In a 2021 advisory report, Murthy, the U.S. Surgeon General, said a “widespread” mental health care crisis was already affecting children, adolescents, and young adults — and it was only accelerated by the pandemic.
More recently, in May, Murthy released another advisory, warning about the potential effects social media use has on youth mental health, such as symptoms of depression and anxiety.
Murthy reiterated those concerns Wednesday, saying it will take “nothing short of a movement” to properly address the country’s ongoing mental health concerns.
“I worry about what the future holds for all of our children, given the crisis that we’re seeing, and I know this is personal for so many of us,” he said, emphasizing that the youth mental health crisis in America “represents the defining public health challenge of our time.”
“The bottom line is, there’s a lot that has happened, but there’s also a lot more to do. And I know we all feel the urgency to do more,” he added. “We will not stop our efforts until every child who needs care can get it, until we’ve actually addressed the underlying root causes of what’s driving this mental health crisis.”
In Indiana, suicide is the second leading cause of death for teens. In 2021, one out of every three Hoosier students from 7th to 12th grade reported experiencing persistent sadness and hopelessness, according to the Indiana Youth Institute. One out of seven students made a plan to commit suicide.
But challenges persist within schools to address students’ needs.
Indiana’s student-to-counselor ratio is currently the highest in the country, with schools employing just 1,494 counselors statewide for more than 1 million students. Compared to the national average, that’s 286 more students per counselor.
Even last year’s ratio of 475 students per counselor put Indiana far above the American School Counselor Association’s recommendation of 250-to-1.
Westfield High School employs eight counselors to serve a school population of about 2,800 — equal to roughly 350 counselors per student. Through grant funds and a partnership with St. Vincent, the school also provides on-campus access to licensed behavioral health therapists.
Even so, highschoolers who spoke with Jill Biden on Wednesday said added support is needed for LGBTQ+ students and to provide more mental health communication training for teachers. Others said they want the Biden administration to address the proliferation of content posted to social media promoting negativity and encouraging eating disorders.
Students in the school’s mental health club, called Robbie’s Hope, said they’re trying to fill existing gaps, working to make scholarships available to students who need help paying for various therapies and mental health services.
The school group is specifically focusing this academic year on mental well-being among student athletes. That includes targeted resources for over-training, anxiety, burnout, seasonal depression and eating habits.
“All of us have struggled with mental health, personally, at some point,” said Westfield senior Analiece Emigh, who spoke with Biden Wednesday. “None of us want other students to feel alone, or like they don’t matter.”
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