Amid a youth suicide crisis, Iowans develop creative mental health resources for troubled kids

Youth suicide is more prevalent in Iowa than the nation as a whole. Now, a parent-led coalition is reaching out

Published February 11, 2019 7:00PM (EST)


Children in Iowa are dying. Youth suicide is more prevalent in Iowa than the nation as a whole and according to the Iowa-based Coalition for a Children’s Mental Health Redesign — a grassroots, parent-led, coalition working together to find solutions to Iowa’s current children’s mental health crisis — there are 64,000 children in Iowa with substantial functional impairment caused by mental illness who do not receive any mental health services.

This is a troubling trend nationwide. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) says one in five children ages 13-18 have, or will have, a serious mental illness. According to the CDC, 1 in 6 U.S. children aged 2–8 years (17.4%) had a diagnosed mental, behavioral, or developmental disorder. This isn’t news to the educators and community organizations that work with children and adolescents. In fact, when asked, teachers often indicate that the mental health of their students is in the forefront of their minds. Schools are doing their best and even with dedicated school counselors, more is needed. Many educators and advocates cite the increase in the number of students with anxiety comes from the advent of social media and its 24-7, looming presence and influence. Here are but a few saddening, real-life stories from Iowan children who struggle with depression:

  • Eight-year-old Colin* is overwhelmed by a sudden, inexplicable sense of terror. His throat closes and his heart pounds. He isn’t able to tell his dad why he’s so scared.
  • Ten-year-old Marcus* struggles to get out bed. He is always tired, has constant headaches and stomachaches and misses school at least one day per week. The school nurse and family doctor can’t find any physical explanation for his ailments.
  • Thirteen-year-old Wyatt* is impulsive and aggressive and can’t seem to make and keep friends. He spends a lot of time in the principal’s office for being disrespectful, stealing and threatening classmates. He’s been picked up by the local police department for a variety of offenses.
  • Sixteen-year-old Emilee* looks in the mirror and sees someone who is much heavier than she actually is. To the people around her, Emilee looks healthy and happy but behind closed doors Emilee eats bags of chips and packages of cookies until she is physically ill.
  • Fifteen-year-old Cameron* identifies as genderfluid and comes from a conservative home where gender norms are strictly enforced. As a result, Cameron has feelings of worthlessness and depression.
  • Twelve-year-old Mary* has experienced significant trauma in her young life. She is angry and is accustomed to seeing violence and considers this a viable solution to addressing problems.

Thought the state of Iowa has passed long overdue legislation to support mental health, the question of adequately funding and meaningful access to mental health resources remains.

Here are four examples of how schools and communities, in spite of limited resources, are joining forces in order to creatively and effectively support children who may suffer from a wide array of mental health concerns.

 Mindfulness for Schools – Dubuque, Iowa

Molly Schreiber, a yoga instructor and former elementary education teacher formed a non-profit organization called Mindfulness for Schools when she was approached by the Dubuque Community School District in Dubuque, Iowa, to help create a curriculum that teaches students strategies to help them learn how to regulate their behavior.

Once a month, a yoga instructor meets with an elementary classroom where the students take part in a five-pronged lesson that includes: Mudras (breathing exercises), Sun Salutation (the practice of moving your mind, body and breath as one), Heart of the Lesson (where the focus is on one mindfulness practice), Guided Mindfulness Practice (Lying down, students use eye pillows and learn that their minds can be used as a tool to help them relax and release), and Close of Practice (where students conclude with simple words, phrases or songs that help them with mindfulness).

Once the yoga teacher leaves, the classroom teacher steps in and follows up with consistent mindfulness practice. "Almost all classrooms have breathing techniques in their safe spot to help students calm when they are upset," Chris Nugent, Principal of Fulton Elementary School, says. "We also use mindfulness apps that kids can listen to in order to calm down. Teachers also use yoga poses and breathing as breaks throughout the day.”

Currently implemented in four schools, Mindfulness for Schools will expand to the nine remaining elementary schools in Dubuque during the 2019-2020 school year.

Pride Group at United Action for Youth (UAY) – Iowa City, Iowa

LGBTQIA+ individuals are nearly three time more likely to experience a mental health issue such as major depression or anxiety. The fear surrounding discrimination and violence toward these children can lead to depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, suicidal ideation and substance abuse. Funded through grants and private donations, United Action for Youth (UAY) offers a variety of programming for teens to grow and lead, including Pride Group.

Led by three facilitators, Pride Group is a weekly free drop in program for LGBTQIA+ youth between the ages of 12 and 18 years and their allies where participants can air their frustrations and injustices with the world, laugh about the good and make close connections. The tight bonds these children create give them the opportunity to explore and validate their identities.

Girls’ Circles – Scavo Alternative School, Des Moines, Iowa

Retired school counselors, Virginia Trexler and Heidi Bagg volunteer two times each week as facilitators for Girls’ Circles at Scavo Alternative School in Des Moines, Iowa. The participants meet in small groups of six to seven in the school counselor’s office. There, the students tuck their mobile devices away and spend the next hour doing one of two things – listening or speaking.

The sessions often begin with a prompt from a poem or a passage from a book. A recently used prompt came from an excerpt of Michelle Obama’s memoir, "Becoming." A talking piece, a small item that the speaker holds is passed from student to student. The student in possession of the talking piece has the floor and have the opportunity to tell their own stories with no comment or judgment from their peers. The sessions end with another poem or reading. “There is magic in the circle,” says Trexler. “It’s their (the girls) moment to tell their stories. The circle creates a bonding and a depth for the girls they didn’t know was possible. They learn to trust one another.”

 Changing Lives Through Literature – Carnegie Stout Public Library, the City of Dubuque and Juvenile Court Services, Dubuque Iowa

Changing Lives Through Literature is a joint partnership that gathers youth referred to Juvenile Court Services for a delinquent offense. In order to avoid more formal proceedings, the students take part in this five-week program that connects youth to literature. Facilitated by Sue Henricks, the library director and Juvenile Court Services and the Juvenile Court School Coach, participants gather at the local public library to read, discuss and journal about a variety of books.

Books are selected based on their realistic portrayals of the challenges and barriers facing youth including peer relations, familial relationships, mental health and cognitive restructuring. Samples of the books chosen include "The Giver" by Lois Lowry, "Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty" by G. Neri, "Breathing Underwater" by Alex Finn and "Ironman" By Chris Crutcher. Guided discussions allow the group members to explore and reflect on the choices that the characters make and how it relates to their own lives.

The program has been met with rave reviews, as noted by these comments from some of the participants:

“This class helped me interact more with others. I also like the books because they kind of show me a different way to act in different situations. But it truly helped me to see what happens if I stayed on that same path.”

“What I like about the class was discussion.... We all felt comfortable with each other to express how we felt about the books.”

“This was a wonderful class. I would love to do this class again, but I don’t want to come back because that mean [sic] I got in trouble.”

“I have learned a lot in this group. I have learned that their [sic] are consequence [sic] to my actions. I have also made some new friends that I like. We had some days that were bad and took longer to get through then [sic] others but we had some days that were good and we got through fast. I think all of us had a lot of fun and has [sic] grown a lot.”

The most recent data from the program indicate an 81% success, with only 19% reoffending.

* * *

To be clear, these programs and activities are not a replacement for professional mental health services needed by so many children. Meaningful legislation, funding and access is needed to protect our most fragile children. However, each program does have something in common: Authentic, meaningful opportunity for youth to interact and connect with others in a safe, caring environment provided by knowledgeable, caring advocates.

*Students names, gender, ages and other characteristics have been changed to protect their privacy.



By Heather Gudenkauf

Heather Gudenkauf is a Title I Reading Coordinator, and the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of the novels "The Weight of Silence" and "Not a Sound".  Heather lives in Iowa with her family. Her next novel, "Before She Was Found," goes on sale on April 16th.

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