SEATTLE — McKenna Riddle was changing — even her friends were starting to notice. The Kent teenager was afraid, easily irritated, and would find herself either on guard or struggling to remember things, almost “shutting down,” she said.
“It was almost as if life was driving the wheel and I wasn’t in control,” Riddle, 19, recalled, describing how she felt after she went through a traumatic experience in early 2020.
“Like I was in the back seat, watching everything through the window of a car just passing by,” she said.
Riddle was facing mental health challenges familiar to thousands of young people in Washington state and across the country: About 15% of children ages 3 to 17 statewide experience some of these symptoms and are diagnosed with anxiety or depression, according to a 2022 report from the Anne E. Casey Foundation.
Youth mental health concerns surged during the COVID-19 pandemic, leading Gov. Jay Inslee and national pediatric organizations to declare a youth mental health crisis. The effects on young people ripple out to this day, forcing them and their families to find care in an underfunded and siloed mental health system.
Youth face incredible stress in today’s world, from bullying, to fears of school shootings, stress over climate change, and the typical troubles of adolescence like balancing schoolwork with time for family and friends, and planning their future among it all.
In Riddle’s case, friends encouraged her to talk to a professional. That’s when she met Patrick John White, her current therapist, through Kent Youth and Family Services.
Riddle is one of 566 youth this past year who received behavioral health services at KYFS, an organization that’s existed for more than 50 years and offers programs like mental health and substance use services, as well as early childhood education. It’s also one of 13 nonprofits that benefit from reader donations to The Seattle Times Fund for Those in Need; and for youth and families in South King County, it’s opened up the doors to healing.
Riddle is one of four kids in her family. Her childhood was often volatile, and she frequently found herself in arguments with her mother, fighting what felt like every single day. One sibling went to foster care, and Riddle hoped to leave home as soon as possible. Eventually she ended up at Kent Phoenix Academy (now known as Kent Laboratory Academy), an alternative school for students who struggle in a traditional classroom.
In 2021, she was diagnosed with PTSD and anxiety, and started seeing White every Monday.
White, her therapist, is happy to see her growth.
It wasn’t his plan to work with young people, but after receiving his counseling degree at Seattle University, he spent time at Kent Laboratory and found he really enjoyed the deep conversations with students.
“You talk to a teen for five minutes, they’re talking about death and life and identity and sex and all this stuff,” he explained.
“I think they can sense that adults don’t have a lot of the answers. We kind of pretend or posture like we do sometimes. And so they’re asking the hard questions.”
In his work, White uses a mix of cognitive and dialectical behavioral therapy (two evidence-based forms of talk therapy) to tackle some of the complex traumas many of the students share, but acknowledges that what’s taught in academic courses is not applicable to every client.
“I definitely got smacked in the head real fast the first couple years of my work,” he said.
During a typical week, he sees about 24 clients. He knows many of the youth he’s scheduled to meet with will be absent by the very nature of their challenges in and out of school.
The teens KYFS serves often are from lower-income families and most are on Medicaid. KYFS provides some sliding-scale options and has a contract with the Kent School District in South King County. White notes that most of his referrals come from other students, and word-of-mouth builds trust. But for many, the mental health system has bounced them around.
“A lot of my kids have had therapists before but they’ve had like six or seven because community mental health doesn’t have the support or the resources to keep therapists,” he said.
“If I’m lucky, and they come to me, I can actually work with them. But by the time they get to me sometimes they’re just like, ‘I’m done seeing therapists.’”
Mental health is notoriously difficult to fund and staff: Especially at smaller, nonprofit agencies, therapists often burn out from high caseloads and eventually leave the field, choosing private practice once they’ve amassed enough licensure hours. There, they can circumvent insurance companies altogether and take only patients who can afford to pay out of pocket. During the pandemic, many therapists also opted for the added bonus of working from home rather than in community settings.
“There’s just so much incentive to leave,” White admits. For kids who are already struggling to build healthy relationships, the inconsistency means retelling their story and losing valuable trust.
According to data from the Kaiser Family Foundation, Washington state’s mental health care worker shortage means only 16.2% of the population has an appropriate ratio of providers for the community.
KYFS has 14 people on its mental health and substance use staff, with an additional six interns training alongside them.
Brenda Rogers, the mental health director, acknowledges that it’s hard to keep staff after they’ve completed their licensing hours. The work is hard, the pay is low, and there’s a lot of red tape to keep the doors open. She actually started at KYFS in 2014 but then left and moved into private practice herself.
“I came back with the hope that I could change a little bit of how community mental health is done, or at least make it different here,” Rogers said.
The path forward
Broadly, steps are being taken in Washington to improve access to mental health care and support people in crisis. This summer, the 988 crisis line went live to provide people with free 24-hour access to a trained counselor through both phone and text. New legislation gives licensed psychologists the opportunity to provide teletherapy in multiple states.
And in King County, officials are hoping to build five new mental health crisis centers through a property tax that could go before voters in April.
For Riddle, the last few years of therapy and medication have been incredibly helpful — and she credits White for that.
“He goes beyond any expectations that people give him,” Riddle said. “He brings snacks. He makes sure we’re comfortable. If we just want to sit there and relax, he gives us a chance to, so we can open up on our own.”
Riddle graduated last year, got her driver’s license and started a job this month as an animal care associate at Seattle Humane. It’s fitting for a gal who already owns a small zoo: She cares for two cats (Omen, a black cat with orange eyes, is her emotional support companion), one leopard gecko named Astro, two frogs, and six mice.
She encourages others to start their healing journey.
“When I started going to therapy, it was almost as if everything cleared up,” she said. “Like a storm clearing up in the sky.”