MASON, Ohio — Because of the fatigue many students felt during a school year dominated by the COVID-19 pandemic, mental health and well-being are topping educators’ lists of priorities.
A program at Mason City Schools has been addressing those concerns for years and since the recent spike since the start of this pandemic. They found, over a three-week period, more than a dozen students were hospitalized with suicidal thoughts, feeling the weight of the pandemic and wishing to harm themselves.
The district has a team actively looking for the signs and finding resources -- and one of them happens to walk on four paws.
A classroom favorite, Hibbs the therapy dog, walks the halls of Mason High School.
“He’s usually with the counselors everyday down in their office, just being there and being a system of support not only for the students but for the staff as well,” said teacher Alex Beurket.
Beurket, also lead advisor for the Hope Squad peer-to-peer suicide prevention group, hosts Hibbs in his classroom. The golden retriever-black labrador mix has been with Beurket since the beginning of the school year in a plan already in place by the district before the pandemic.
“We help to educate students here at the high school to better understand signs of suicide and what to do if another student and peer of theirs is in crisis or possibly showing signs of possible suicide,” he said.
In one three-week period, more than a dozen Mason City Schools students were taken to hospitals for suicidal thoughts.
Superintendent Jonathan Cooper said the pandemic adds on an extra layer of concern.
“When we look at the level of risk that our students are at in terms of their concern over suicidal ideation or depression or anxiety, we have seen a 60% increase in the level of risk,” Cooper told WCPO.
He said more recently, children as young as elementary school are falling into that risk category.
“Honestly, I believe our world is changing so quickly,” Cooper said. “We are in a state right now as we come through the pandemic where the world is more uncertain than it’s ever been before. That’s not just something happening in our schools -- it’s happening in our homes.”
That’s why Cooper is relying heavily on the systems they already have in place to address mental health concerns.
“We’ve been fortunate to have built multiple systems to track data and watch trends across our whole school district. For example, we do have programs that pay attention to where our kids are in terms of the concerns of mental health. If there are referrals that are being made or if they are asking for help, for example, we have a tip line that is anonymous for our families to report tips,” he said.
This year, the district partnered with Cincinnati Children’s to bring 17 therapists on site to work with students and staff.
Along with the Hope Squad, there’s even a tip line where anyone can send in their concerns about themselves or their peers.
“It’s going to take a community approach to continue to address the wellness of our community.”
And for parents who might be wondering where to turn first, Paolo DeMaria, superintendent of public instruction for the Ohio Department of Education, offered this advice: ""Never be afraid to ask for help for your student. We see so many things where we know students are suffering from the mental challenges and those mental stressors. Some people feel like, well if I have to ask for mental health services, that's a big stigma. It isn't; all those people are here to help."
If you know anyone struggling with suicidal thoughts, you can reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 24-7 at 800-273-8255.