More students feeling sad or hopeless. More young people assessed for the risk of suicide. And, according to a nurse at the ETHS student health center, “an alarming rise in the rate of STI’s” (sexually transmitted infections).

Each of those trends by themselves would be alarming. Add them all together, along with the fear of catching potentially deadly COVID-19, and you can see how difficult the past two years have been for students and staff at Evanston Township High School (and, of course, at other schools as well).

On Monday night, the District 202 Board of Education was told of the distressing reality.

“The pandemic,” said Ida Joyce Sia, a nurse at the ETHS student health center, “has laid bare a lof of gaps in wellness.”

The need for both health services and health education, Sia said, is critical, because “a lot of students are not well.”

ETHS probably has more resources than do many schools. Thirty-two mental health professionals. An in-school medical clinic which stayed open for students, even when the ETHS building was otherwise closed and the students were on remote education. And a commitment to including social/emotional learning in the fabric of daily school life.

Principal Marcus Campbell, for example, said sometimes it’s been necessary to stop staff meetings or classes mid-stream and “talk about how we’re really feeling.”

We can’t be “acting like everything’s okay every day,” Campbell said, “because it’s not.”

School board member Pat Maunsell said the numbers presented Monday were “just overwhelming.”

A March, 2021 wellbeing study (mid-pandemic) found 30% of ETHS students reported feeling sad or hopeless most days for two weeks, so much so that they stopped doing some of their usual activities.

The same survey had found 106 students hospitalized for psychiatric reasons, which is actually down a bit from a previous study. But 26 of those students were hospitalized more than once, more than a 100% jump.

There has been a 71% increase in suicide risk assessments for students in the first semester of school year 2022 versus 2020. But ETHS is now seeing some progress. In the third quarter of this school year, suicide assessments are down 75% from the same period in 2020.

ETHS has a variety of wellness programs available and just completed a depression and suicide prevention overview for the entire freshman class.

There are programs for specific groups, such as one called “Black, Brown, and Breathing.”

Two new social work positions have been added, along with two more case managers.

Associate Principal Taya Kinzie said ETHS is “committed to a culture of care,” but it’s not easy.

While 84% of students in the 2021 survey said they never or rarely abused substances in the prior year, obviously some had and still do.

The survey showed white students (21%) more likely to abuse than either African-American (7%), Hispanic (11%) or Asian (11%) young people. The highest rate was among white females, at 24%.

Taking in all the data, Kinzie said ETHS is not planning a “return to the previous ways or an old normal.” Things just won’t snap back as COVID diminishes.

Using the numbers as a guide and the programs to work with students and staff, she stated, ETHS will “reinvent itself continually.”

Jeff Hirsh joined the Evanston Now reporting team in 2020 after a 40-year award-winning career as a broadcast journalist in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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