School closures, lockdowns and loneliness — the pandemic intensified the feelings of isolation for students from friends and routines. Nationally, young people across the country are increasingly reporting rising rates of mental distress amid the global coronavirus pandemic.

While COVID-19 was named a public health crisis, it has created a parallel epidemic involving mental health — especially among younger people.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), there was a 31-percent increase in mental health emergency room visits last year among children ages 12 to 17 years old.

While middle and high school can be tumultuous for students as they worry about grades, social acceptance, and college admission, the uncertainty of the pandemic, coupled with political division and racial unrest, further exacerbated those tensions.

A similar statistic extends to older teens and young adults, explained Stephanie Delmore, MA, LPC.

“Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for those aged 10-34, and that is a devastating and sad epidemic,” Delmore said. “If there is one thing in my lifetime that I want to do, it is to educate and empower others to prevent this from happening.”

Last July, Delmore began as the victim assistance coordinator for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, and employee support coordinator for parishes and schools. Superintendent of Schools Dr. Kathleen Cepelka was instrumental in Delmore’s new role as she wanted to assist principals, staff and teachers in schools. Her role includes resources and support for mental health issues, and emotional and social learning and how they can respond.

“As we have seen in the news, there is a huge need for help, and I don’t believe we have even seen the extent of it — many professional sources are talking about a mental health crisis wave,” Delmore said. “And counselors have huge waitlists, which is not good at all for those who are struggling.”

With a background as an EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) licensed professional counselor and a licensed school counselor, Delmore understands the schools’ need for mental health support.

“There’s a need for critical incident response when there is a tragedy of any kind, such as a death in the school, a natural disaster, or for anything that causes stress in the community,” Delmore said. “Critical Incident Stress Debriefing was a model developed in the 70s and used at first for first responders. The protocol helps a person not internalize emotional trauma but instead walk through it and have discussions on how to process emotions and recover from the trauma.”

To help schools in the archdiocese prepare for disasters, Delmore offered training for school counselors. Calling it a Critical Incident Response Group, she worked with eight school counselors who all support the schools in the archdiocese.

“I put the word out to the existing network of 78 counselors in the archdiocese, and eight of them came forward and expressed interest,” Delmore said. “Because of the training, we can function as a response team, if needed. My hope is to have many more counselors interested in training so we can have regional response teams. It is understandable that I didn’t have more volunteers this year, as many did not have the bandwidth to do it this year with the lockdowns and many ways they were stretched in the classroom.”

In addition to the Critical Incident Response Group, Delmore has promoted suicide awareness and prevention through QPR training. QPR is an acronym for Question. Persuade. Refer. The institute’s mission is to reduce suicidal behaviors and save lives by providing innovative, practical, and proven suicide prevention training. The signs of crisis are all around. They believe that quality education empowers all people, regardless of their background, to make a positive difference in the life of someone they know.

“The training teaches someone how to recognize the warning signs of suicide, how to ask questions, how to persuade them and refer and connect them to mental health care,” Delmore said. “We have been offering this to parishes and all schools — so far, we have had 11 schools in the archdiocese train their entire staff. This isn’t something that just a school principal and school counselor should know; everyone should know this and how to intervene.”

Delmore said she believes more parishes and schools will want to be part of the Critical Incident Response Group and QPR training as word spreads of its intrinsic value for colleagues, family members and teenagers.

“This program can be a great resource for clergy, schools and others dealing with mental health situations,” she said. “A lot of them have not had to deal with situations like this, so I am eager to help and be responsible to their needs. I believe my role will evolve over time, and I am happy to be able to help in any way I can.”

Stephanie Delmore