More Kansans of all ages — including children — are grappling with mental illness. Schools throughout the country are trying to address anxiety, depression, behavior outbursts and increases in suicide ideation (thinking about or planning suicide).

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nationally one in six U.S. children aged 2–8 years (17.4%) has a diagnosed mental, behavioral or developmental disorder. This is an important statistic because untreated mental health disorders such as depression, anxiety, and conduct disorder can increase the risk of repeating a grade, truancy, and dropping out of school according to research published with the National Center for Biotechnology Information.

School social workers are the behavior health "glue" who work with students to overcome mental health challenges. Every day our teachers work to meet the academic needs of students. However, the increasing behavioral and mental health needs of students requires the additional expertise of a school social worker who is trained to work with students.

School social workers serve a critical role in our schools in tackling the social, emotional, and behavioral health needs of students. Students must be present emotionally before they can learn and participate in their education. Social workers improve behavioral outcomes which in turn lead to improved academic outcomes and life-long success plus healthier, happier students (and families).

The mental health needs of students are increasing. According to 2018 data from the Centers for Disease Control, Kansas ranks 8th in the nation of the highest suicide rates of young people ages 10 to 19. Geography is another factor for Kansas. The highest suicide rates for all age groups are occurring in the most sparsely population (“frontier") Kansas counties.

The 2018 and 2019 Kansas Legislature enacted a school mental health pilot, which enhances the connection between school districts and community mental health centers (CMHC). The program provides a school liaison who focuses on helping families connect their student with the local CMHC. In turn the CMHC works within the schools to provide much needed clinical therapy and case management.

One limitation to serving more students and families is workforce. A significant barrier to address the burgeoning mental health needs of Kansans — urban and rural — is the shortage of social workers, especially in rural areas. Kansas lacks clinically trained social workers who provide in-depth therapy and case managers who help students learn and practice new skills. Earlier this year, Governor Laura Kelly signed SB 15, legislation that provides licensure reciprocity for social workers relocating from other states. It also levels out requirements for clinical licensure in Kansas compared to other states.

This new law will make it easier for more social workers to work in Kansas and to obtain their clinical licenses.

Kansas social workers are ready and able to meet the needs of children and families. Join us, the National Association of Social Workers — Kansas Chapter to support policies which support the challenging mental health needs of Kansans.

Suicide is a tragedy and unchecked mental illness is a lifetime struggle. The Kansas Suicide Prevention Center is always available to help through their hotline at 785-841-235 and online chat www.kansassuicideprevention.org. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline hotline is at 1-800-273-8255.

Wendy Funk Schrag is president of the board of directors for the Kansas Chapter of the National Association of Social Workers.