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Mitchell student survey brings depressive symptoms to focus for community, school officials

Communities That Care looks to form united front for good youth behavioral health

Students at the Mitchell Middle School fill the halls of the Middle School on Friday, March 31, 2023.
Forum News Service File Photo

MITCHELL — There is a mental and behavioral health problem among youth and adolescents in Mitchell and Davison County.

In fact, Sydney Lanning, the coordinator for the Communities That Care organization in Mitchell, uses a strong word when describing the current state of affairs in the fight for good mental health.


“There is a huge crisis going on with mental health. There are not enough providers, not enough spaces for services, everybody is overloaded,” Lanning told the Mitchell Republic. “How do we fix that and prevent the kids from blowing the system out of the water when they get to high school or adult age?”

The ongoing difficulty of diagnosing and treating behavioral and mental health issues goes far beyond the city limits of Mitchell, and is considered a problem on a national scale. But it is a concern among education and medical professionals here as well. Communities That Care, an organization that strives to give communities the tools to address adolescent health and behavior problems through a focus on empirically identified risk and protective factors, is hoping to help lead those efforts.


Lanning, who assumed the role of coordinator for the local branch of the organization that was formed after local officials secured a grant last year, is hoping to help address the need for effective, coordinated identification and treatment of mental and behavioral issues in adolescents.

The group recently took an important step with the completion of a student survey conducted with sixth- and eighth-grade students at the Mitchell School District. The survey, conducted with student anonymity and parental approval, is expected to give the organization hard data it can use to better focus its resources to help them avoid alcohol, drugs and the specter of suicide.

Survey says

There were 257 students who took the survey.

“It really takes the kids’ voices and gives them meaning. What are they actually facing?” Lanning said. “It was really, really positive feedback. We take these results and look at not only the risk factors, but the protective factors that will keep them safe, keep them from doing drugs and alcohol.”

The group flagged a few main issues garnered from the surveys, Lanning said. One of the top findings was that about 60% of students who took that survey have some signs of depressive symptoms. That was an eye-opening find, she said.

“That’s a lot of students. That’s a big can of worms,” Lanning said.

Sydney Lanning
Submitted Photo

Lanning, who works out of Dakota Wesleyan University , said some factors that may play into that number include the routine stress students have faced with having to endure the COVID-19 pandemic, regular schoolwork and classroom obligations and the pressure that comes with getting good grades and getting into college.

“We put a lot of pressure on them,” Lanning said. “It’s very likely these symptoms could roll into suicidal ideation if not addressed. It could be detrimental in the next few years when they become college students. It could be suicide, drugs or alcohol.”


Another identified factor is what Lanning called the family domain and poor family management. That could take the form of family financial stresses when a parent is laid off, or divorce or domestic violence.

Protective factors — positive outlets in the community — are also considered.

“We don’t just look at risk factors, but protective factors. Those can be family attachments or religion or a sense of moral beliefs and things like that. Sports activities, things that create a sense of community. This part was disheartening, as we’re lacking in almost every domain, whether it be community, family, school or the individual itself,” Lanning said. “That’s what helps keep these kids from turning to drugs or prevents them from committing to school. We want to boost those positive programs like sports and (the Mitchell Recreation Center).”

Those factors all impact a youth’s mental wellness, she said. Now the organization will move into improving the response to such factors. That will come through a coordinated effort from Communities That Care and its numerous partner groups, of which there are many, including but not limited to Avera Health, Sanford Health, Stepping Stones, Dakota Counseling Institute, the Davison County Jail and Mitchell Parks and Recreation, to name a few.

The Avera Queen of Peace campus in Mitchell. (Republic file photo)
The Avera Queen of Peace campus in Mitchell. (Republic file photo)

The resources to make an impact are already in the community, Lanning said, but coordinating the wide range of organizations that can help address the situation can be tricky.

“Communities That Care’s main venture is to use the resources that are already here, which is perfect. We don’t want to bring in new programming and bully out the programming that is already here,” Lanning said.

All together

Avera Queen of Peace Hospital produces its Community Health Needs Assessment every three years, and behavioral and mental health regularly makes the list of needs in Mitchell and Davison County.

“As long as I’ve been here, behavioral health or mental health needs are always on it. Every year,” said Dr. Hilary Rockwell, incoming regional president and CEO of Avera Queen of Peace Hospital in Mitchell. “It’s no different in 2022, which was the last time we did the survey.”


Suicide is one of the fastest-growing problems among youth today, Rockwell said.

Community Health Needs Assessment - Avera by inforumdocs on Scribd

“Looking at the youth we see — suicide rates. That’s the fastest growing group, unfortunately, of attempt and success in our youth. So, that’s certainly an area that we need to focus on,” Rockwell said.

Avera Health has taken some steps on its own to help keep up with the demand for services. It operates the Avera Behavioral Health Hospital in Sioux Falls and has tried to open pathways for primary care physicians to get evaluations done easier and in a more timely manner. It also launched the Ask The Question campaign last year.

In Mitchell, she said there are several psychology groups both associated with Avera and independent. But it is a struggle to keep up with demand.

“As far as needing acute mental health help, it’s hard to find those services,” Rockwell said.

Rockwell said the efforts of groups like Communities That Care are on the right track with their work to bring a coordinated response among care providers and other organizations. No one group is likely to solve the issue on its own, and combining forces through information and resource sharing has promise.

A bench sits at the Dry Run Creek Skate Park in Mitchell with the number to a suicide prevention hotline. (Sam Fosness / Mitchell Republic)

“I think the more we can all come together and see what resources we have, then the more we’ll be able to do,” Rockwell said. “What resources do we have? What are we doing? Where can we make improvements? Ultimately, our conclusion is that we’re going to need each other and come together to work on it.”

Giving student the help they need

While the Mitchell School District did not directly coordinate the student survey, Joe Childs, incoming superintendent for the district, said the district recognized the benefits of the research and is always looking to serve its students in a positive way.


“Mental health and physical health is a concern across the county for various reasons. I would say the depressive symptoms are certainly at the forefront of education right now,” Childs said. “And it’s been an added concern over the course of the past few years.”

Mental health and absenteeism are two factors the district is watching closely with its students. Good attendance keeps students close to the services that can help them and in an environment that is more than willing to help where it can.

“Those hardships are certainly things that we’re experiencing now more than ever. The two things that we’ve seen that are the most concerning over the past few years are the mental health component and absenteeism, and there’s a number of reasons why they can be correlated, but both are important,” Childs said. “We need the students to be here because the services we provide that are positively impactful to their mental wellbeing are here.”

Joe Childs
Joe Childs, superintendent for Mitchell School District

The district tries to be proactive where it can. It provides counselors and is open to working with groups like Communities That Care. The work between the two is likely to continue, with the organization hoping to conduct another student survey of upperclassmen in the future.

Childs welcomes that.

“When you’re a school district your key emphasis is on students. This ties right into you serving the students and providing them with what they need,” Childs said. “Anything we can do to have our students lead a healthy life is important to all of us in education.”

The program is being funded through a $150,000 grant with the state Department of Health

Lanning said Communities That Care will continue to work with its partner organization to streamline its information and referral systems, making it easier for the groups to communicate and direct treatment and resources to where it is needed most. It will be an ongoing process that will require funding, time and patience, she said.

Combining that with the data being provided by the students themselves, Lanning feels that these problems can be overcome in the long run.


“The more opportunities we can give these kids, the better off they are,” Lanning said. “It needs to be addressed. It’s not going to resolve itself by ignoring it. It’s going to get worse.”

Lanning, Rockwell and Childs all encouraged anyone with questions regarding behavioral or mental health with themselves or their child to reach out to their health provider of choice or the Mitchell School District for more information.

Erik Kaufman joined the Mitchell Republic in July of 2019 as an education and features reporter. He grew up in Freeman, S.D., graduating from Freeman High School. He graduated from the University of South Dakota in 1999 with a major in English and a minor in computer science. He can be reached at ekaufman@mitchellrepublic.com.
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