U.S. Rep. Underwood discusses students' mental health during roundtable

Rep. Underwood vows to tackle support services for high school students

GENEVA – In a meeting with more than a dozen mental health professionals Friday, U.S. Rep. Lauren Underwood, D-Naperville, was taken aback when she was informed about the mental health crisis combined with increased drug use among local high school students.

“The amount of drugs that I am seeing students use is just astronomical,” said Kimberly Boatner, a contract clinical social worker in Batavia School District 101 who also has a private practice in Geneva. “It’s not like when I was in high school. Most of our kids are using on any given day.”

Boatner clarified that more than half of high school students she sees have used drugs, but not necessarily every day.

Boatner said the combination of students’ mental health issues with opioid use results in students who are high or in possession of drugs at school.

District 101 has reduced the number of student suspensions in the past two years because students are given an option to reduce a suspension if they agree to treatment, Boatner said.

Underwood met with mental health providers at TriCity Family Services in Geneva during a 90-minute roundtable discussion of challenges and barriers for people looking to access mental health services in the 14th Congressional District.

‘It’s almost an ER setting’

Sandy Borgstrom, student support specialist in St. Charles School District 303, said she has seen an increase of self-harm requiring hospitalization in the middle school population over the past two to three years.

At the high school level, Borgstrom said students are feeling pressure in Advanced Placement and honors classes that many may not be ready for.

She said another factor is the number of classes students are taking. Some students skip lunch because it is not required, so they do not have any down time during the school day, Borgstrom said.

Kelly Hesselbaum, the Geneva School District 304 staff social worker and prevention coordinator, said four social workers oversee 150 students a year with ongoing services, and some of those are acute mental health crises.

“It’s almost an ER setting of trying to deal with what’s in front of us,” Hesselbaum said.

No support for recovery

Boatner and Borgstrom described a situation in which a student in need of mental health and addiction services has no real support system once released from the hospital.

“The barrier for students that I’m seeing is an environment that is not supportive to recovery,” Boatner said. “The parents are addicted, as well, or can’t participate because they’re working. They would need [family medical leave] if the child is going to intensive outpatient therapy, and many parents don’t have that. … We are really struggling with finding some sort of recovery system within the community.”

Boatner described students who don’t have anywhere to go outside of a church setting.

“There is nowhere for young people to go to kind of be sober and meet new people and have that social support,” Boatner said. “The social supports are really lacking. There’s not a lot of sober environments for students to attend outside of the school.”

Boatner said there is one meeting every Friday for adolescents in a 12-step program in the northwestern district.

“I have 16-year-olds and 17-year-olds attending meetings with adults,” Boatner said. “They do not relate to adults. They don’t have a mortgage, and their boss isn’t mad at them.”

Borgstrom said after students go to a residential placement for six weeks, instead of a step-down program, they go right back to school – and many are rehospitalized.

‘We don’t hear this conversation’

Underwood acknowledged that this was a difficult conversation to have.

“In this community, for middle school and high school students, they are introduced to illicit drugs in a very casual environment. It is very, very, very, very prevalent and normal and routine,” Underwood said, restating the problem so she was clear. “These [drugs] are available in the home, and frequently a parent also has a substance abuse disorder and may not be in treatment.”

While school districts contract with outside agencies to help students – with the incentive to reduce the length of a suspension – they have limited options to keep them from relapsing, Underwood repeated.

Underwood said what she was told Friday was not being brought up among the groups who come to Washington, D.C.

“We don’t hear this conversation – ever,” Underwood said. “This conversation has never come up in a town hall – to date – even in private conversations. … I am so grateful you were so candid in flagging these issues. My commitment is to see it through and see where we can be helpful.”

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