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At student mental health summit, hundreds talk suicide, cell phones, and therapists in schools

Kate Wells/Michigan Radio

“Here’s the question that even I have difficulty with: are you having thoughts of suicide?” Frank King told a crowded room in Lansing on Tuesday. An estimated 500 students, school counselors, and other educators came in from across the state for a Student Mental Health Summit, where the focus ranged from social media to the impact of putting therapists in schools. 

“If you can’t say that sentence, find someone who can,” said King, whose bio lists him as a “suicide prevention speaker and trainer known as the Mental Health Comedian.” Speaking openly about his own depression and chronic suicidal ideation, King said he wanted to give the audience a toolkit for recognizing when a student may be suicidal, and what to say to them.


“Here’s one: if they’re depressed, depressed, depressed, and then happy all of a sudden?” Then it may be because they’ve made a plan to kill themselves, King said, “and they know the pain is going to end. Most people I’m aware of that are depressed, don’t want to kill themselves. They don’t want to live.” 

Schools from Traverse City to Grand Rapids sent small teams to presentations from districts trying to support transgender students, handle trauma, and navigate social media and cell phone use.

This cannot become an “us versus them” conversation, psychologist Dr. Lisa Day said in one breakout session. Lecturing students or shaming them about their phone use isn’t effective. Adolescence is one of the loneliest times, and your phone “is never going to leave you,” Day said. The dopamine hits from getting “likes” and texts are “more powerful than is natural,” she says.

“Is it our fault that we’re addicted?” one student from the crowd asked. “Because I was like, three when Apple became huge.” It’s not your fault, Day assured her. Adults have the same struggles, and need to be honest with students about that. “We don’t have the answers,” another speaker said.  

Credit Kate Wells/Michigan Radio
A breakout session on the topics of suicide and digital media at the Student Mental Health Summit.

“We don’t have a good grasp on it ourselves,” said Jessica Evans, a student support counselor at Clare Public Schools. “And I think that to find those ways that we can say [to students], you know, ‘It’s not going away. You are going to have to figure out a good way to handle it. And we don’t want it to impact your health.” 

One school’s story: putting a therapist in a school, and watching grades go up

“What I’m dealing with as a school counselor today, is totally different than what I was dealing with 20 years ago,” Catherine Livingston, counselor at Henry Ford II High School in Sterling Heights, told those who came to her presentation. Outwardly, her students seem to be thriving, she said. “They’re putting on a mask.”

"What I'm dealing with as a school counselor today, is totally different than what I was dealing with 20 years ago.” Outwardly, students seem to be thriving. "They're putting on a mask."

She used to see students coming into her office, and introducing themselves by name. Now, they come in and say, “‘Hi, I’m having a panic attack,’ or ‘I have a test and I didn’t study and I’m so anxious.’ I don’t know the last time a student came in, and said their name first to me, rather than a mental health issue,” Livingston said. 

Parents call her and say, “‘Hi, I think my son John has depression…’ I don’t hear, ‘Hi, my son might need some academic support.’” School counselors are overwhelmed, she said, and serving as “triage.” They may be able to spend an hour with one student, but they can’t promise they’ll be able to see them again next week, or the week after. 


So Livingston pushed her school to bring in a practicing therapist from a local organization (Macomb Family Services) who could see students, for free, during school hours. At first, the pushback was fierce. Other school counselors worried the therapist would encroach on their territory. Administrators fretted about getting sued. And teachers were incredulous that the solution for a failing student, involved them missing still more class.

Beyond the logistics, some thought it would make the school look bad. “What are they going to think?” Livingston remembers educators asking. “Are they going to say we have a school full of, as they would say, ‘crazy kids?’ Are they going to think, someone’s going to come in with a weapon?” 

Tracking the impact

It took two years for Livingston to finally get buy in. But eventually, the school agreed to let “Kelly,” as the therapist is known at the school, come in twice a week. Macomb Family Services received a grant to give students up to 6 therapy sessions, every 90 days. All sessions were confidential, Livingston assured the students. For administrators, she referred again and again to the Michigan health code, which says a "minor 14 years of age or older may request and receive mental health services...without the consent or knowledge of the minor's parent, guardian, or person in loco parentis."

Credit Kate Wells/Michigan Radio
David Ersig, a vice principal at Henry Ford II High School in Sterling Heights, presents data on the impact of having a school therapist

The first year, 65 students had sessions with Kelly. And Assistant Principal David Ersig wondered, would this kind of intervention have any measurable impact on their grades? Especially when other things hadn't worked?


So Ersig, a former math teacher, started keeping track. For his data, he split the 65 students into three groups. Group A were the students who'd been required to see the therapist once or twice, as an alternative to a suspension or detention.


Students in Group B were referred to see the therapist, came voluntarily. That group typically saw the therapist three to five times.


Finally, Group C consisted of students who maxed out the six sessions allowed, and went on to get additional mental health support, either from outside the school or by continuing to attend therapy.

Ersig's results seemed promising.

English grades went up across the board. The average increase was .37 GPA bump, on a scale where a 4.0 is an A. “And that’s impressive when you think about how hard it is to raise grades, especially when you’re struggling,” he said. 

In math, however, the improvements were smaller, with just a .205 increase on average. On the whole, it’s not enough to be statistically significant, Ersig said. But he sees a silver lining in the math grades for Group B, the voluntary students who only needed three to five sessions. Their results are larger: a .608 increase in math grades, on average. 

"We can say that this participation in this program, it's powerful. I'm not going to sit here and say there's a cause and effect. But I will say it's powerful."

“We can say that this participation in this program, it’s powerful. It is impactful. I’m not going to sit here and say there’s a cause and effect, because there’s a lot of variables we didn’t account for ” Ersig says. “But I will say it’s powerful.”

What’s next

There’s a wait list to see Kelly these days, Livingston says. Students are hearing about her through word of mouth, and come in asking, “Is Kelly here today?” The school also brought in two specialists from the local domestic violence center, so a total of three therapists are now available. 

They’re also trying a new option: group therapy. Students who get a 10-day suspension are given an option: go to group therapy with Kelly, and your suspension drops to just 5 days. Teachers are starting to get on board, and even referring students to the therapist, Livingston says. 

No one's declaring victory just yet, however. Livingston would like to keep Kelly "forever." But what happens when the grant money runs out? And how do you change the perception that certain students are "lazy," or just "don't care?" She's asking teachers to approach kids who aren't trying in class or don't turn in homework, a little differently. Rather than shaming them, just email me, Livingston tells them. Say the student’s having an issue. And the school will get them in to see the therapist.

If you or a loved one are having thoughts of suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, available 24 hours a day: 1-800-273-8255.
This story was last updated October 9th at 3 pm.

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
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