Schools in Washington County and parts of Ramsey County are intensifying efforts to help preteens struggling with stress and anxiety, which can lead to more serious mental health problems if not treated.

“We want to try to head this off before it becomes a real problem,” said Bob Sherman, executive director of Youth Service Bureau, an organization that helps youth and families be more successful at home and in school.

Two new grants will bring therapists into middle schools in those two east metro counties.

Last week, Youth Service Bureau was awarded $50,000 from the Andeavor Foundation for an initiative to create safer schools. The funds will be split between the South Washington School District and the North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale School District. Sherman said plans are in the works to bring a therapist into the schools once a week in addition to offering educational opportunities for parents to learn to recognize signs of mental illness.

The organization has also received $5,500 from the United Way of Washington County East to provide a mental health classroom presentation for all sixth- and seventh-grade students at Stillwater’s Oak-Land Middle School this coming school year. Youth Service Bureau plans to conduct about 30 of the presentations, which will focus on teaching prevention and coping strategies for stress, anxiety and depression.

“We are finding a lot of middle-school kids who are so stressed out ... by the time they get to middle school, they feel they can’t handle everything in life,” Sherman said. Youth Service Bureau is applying for additional funding to expand its presence in the schools in Washington and eastern Ramsey counties.

Across the country, children and teens are reporting more anxiety and depression. The National Institute of Mental Health reports that 31.9 percent of teens are diagnosed with some type of anxiety disorder.

That means schools are increasingly becoming the front lines in identifying students struggling with mental health problems and steering them toward help.

“You can’t help but see what’s happening around the country in schools,” Sherman said, referring to school shootings and school violence. “We decided to be much more proactive in all of this work. We want to reach kids before issues get out of control.”

By high school, some students may have been battling mental illness for years, Sherman said. Adding educational resources and access to a therapist may also help guide students away from self-medicating with drugs or alcohol, something that Youth Service Bureau chemical health specialists are seeing in middle and high schools.

The Washington County community has been receptive to and supportive of mental health education initiatives, said Jessica Ryan, executive director of the United Way of Washington County East.

For the 40 volunteers who chose what programs would receive United Way funding in the last round of applications, supporting these resources for middle schoolers was an easy choice, Ryan said.

“I think we all understand how important that mental health awareness is,” she said.