May 20, 2022

Schools Can Be A Place To Help Kids In Crisis

Jobi Lawrence
Sheila Brookes
Infographic with silhouette of man helping child climb a mountain.

"I made pizza deliveries [to homes] where I used to make house calls." (Lou Ortenzio, former trusted West Virginia physician)

Beginning in the 1980s, well-meaning physicians across the country overprescribed opioid painkillers. They believed they were doing the right thing. They believed they were helping to relieve their patients from the pain of a tooth extraction, recovery from surgery, an aching overworked back, a sports injury, terminal cancer, and so on. 

Pain specialists said this was the humane decision as opioids were nonaddictive, when used to treat pain. Insurance companies encouraged this practice as the most cost-effective treatment method. Drug companies promoted these drugs as safe and nonaddictive, even in large quantities, because they were gradual release medications. The more opioids physicians prescribed, the more pills their patients sought. 

Lou Ortenzio of Clarksburg, West Virginia, was one of the many physicians who slowly began overprescribing opioids to his patients. Sometimes doctors, including Ortenzio, became addicted to the medications they were overprescribing

Ortenzio lost his license and resorted to becoming a pizza delivery man, telling Sam Quinones of The Atlantic, “I made pizza deliveries [to homes] where I used to make house calls.” While pharmaceutical companies and physicians helped create the opioid epidemic that has now impacted generations, the latest drug crisis, synthetic fentanyl (50 to 100 times more potent than morphine), is fueled by drug traffickers and dealers

Now, we have kids in crisis because their parents and even grandparents have been, and continue to be, in crisis. West Virginia leads the nation in adult drug overdoses. In West Virginia, suicide is the second leading cause of preventable deaths for children ages 10-19, and one in 10 West Virginian children do not live with a biological parent. West Virginia’s kids are in crisis! 

The Region 5 Comprehensive Center (R5CC) works with the West Virginia Department of Education’s Office of Student Support and Well-Being (OSSW) to address this crisis. For example, R5CC hosts bi-monthly “Mental Health Shortage Think Tank” meetings with key stakeholders and decision makers from across the state. Bringing stakeholders and decision makers together with OSSW has increased collaboration between agencies and work groups to address the school based mental health provider shortages. 

With support from West Virginia Department of Education’s OSSW, R5CC developed an infographic to help spread the word to legislators, advocates, policy- and decision-makers, and school districts about Supporting the Mental Health Needs of West Virginia’s students

Kids in crisis need mental health supports. Unfortunately, limited mental health supports are available in West Virginia. Recent statistics show the state needs 122 psychiatrists, 200 clinical, counseling, and school psychologists, 270 mental health counselors, and 630 social workers. While “every kid is one caring adult away from being a success story” (Josh Shipp), West Virginia’s children need many caring mental health professionals to meet their needs and support their families. 

A lack of funding, aging professionals, the opioid crisis, low salaries, and growing demand for mental health services all contribute to the crisis. Fortunately, potential solutions exist to address the mental health needs of these children. 

Schools can implement evidence-based practices, such as Multi-Tiered Systems of Supports (MTSS) and crisis response intervention. The state is actively developing policies to address the mental health provider shortage and align funding and infrastructure to address shortages, especially in rural areas. 

The West Virginia Department of Education is considering an option to develop career pathways to guide interested high school students into the mental health field. These and other creative solutions are needed to address children’s mental health  and prevent the next generation of West Virginia students from being kids in crisis.