Why focusing on mental health is essential for students returning to school in the fall, experts say


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It was a school year like no other in recent memory – combining the challenge of distance and hybrid learning for millions of people with the agony and tension of a pandemic that has killed over 600,000 people.

Mental health has taken its toll on many students and staff.

An Ohio school district will once again welcome students with more counselors and social workers available. Hilliard City Schools in Columbus has added seven new school counselors, up to 42, and 10 more social workers, for a total of 15, director of student welfare Mike Abraham told ABC News.

“Anxiety has always been high with this generation,” Abraham said. “With the pandemic, some students have become very comfortable with isolation, not having to deal with the anxiety that the school might bring or their peers. This is what all districts are doing. faced by coming back now that these kids are together – giving them strategies to be able to manage their anxiety, to deal with the mental health issues they are struggling with. ”

The school district, which has nearly 17,000 students, is tapping into federal support for public schools K-12 to pay for new positions.

Last month, Iowa officials announced the state was launching a new pre-K-12 school mental health center that would expand training and resources that meet mental health needs in schools.

The Iowa Department of Education is investing $ 20 million in federal pandemic relief at the center, which aims to “tackle the impact that pandemic-related disruption has had on students and will focus on strengthening support for mental health in the future, ”Ann, director of the Iowa Department of Education. Lebo said in a statement.

And the Miami-Dade County School District plans to use federal relief funds to hire more mental health clinicians, as most of the district’s 334,000 students are expected to resume in-person learning this fall, the report said. Miami Herald last month.

Other initiatives targeting school culture include adding mental health as an excused absence. This will be the case for public schools in Montgomery County, Maryland’s largest school district, starting in the fall, Education Council member Patricia O’Neill told ABC News Washington, DC, WJLA affiliate.

“I think coming out of the pandemic this year, adults and students recognize the challenges that mental health has brought,” O’Neill told the station. “We had to figure out how to make this change and elevate the importance of mental health because it can be a barrier to learning.”

Range of mental health problems

It will take time to understand the full impact of the pandemic on students, Kelly Vaillancourt Strobach, director of policy and advocacy for the National Association of School Psychologists and School Psychologist, told ABC News. One of the areas of concern is emergency room visits for attempted suicide or suicidal ideation, she said.

In 2020, mental health emergency room visits among 12 to 17 year olds increased 31% from 2019, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Visits for suspected suicide attempts among girls this age from February 21 to March 20, 2021 were 50.6% higher than at the same time in 2019, the agency reported.

A report published in Pediatrics also found “significant increases” in the number of emergency room visits for suicidal ideation and suicide attempts among young people during certain months in 2020 compared to the previous year.

Isolation due to distance learning is another concern. A recent report by a team of researchers from the Graduate Center at the City University of New York found that 91% of New York City parents surveyed agreed that there should be “increased support in mental health for students due to social isolation from COVID-19 “.

Meanwhile, some students may have had no impact on their mental health and may have even thrived virtually, said Vaillancourt Strobach.

“We don’t know the level of trauma the students have gone through. We don’t know their family situation, if they’ve lost someone, if the parents have lost their jobs,” she said. “So what we encourage schools to do is really in those first two weeks, just instill a lot of socio-emotional learning, give the kids the opportunity to talk about what happened at the school. over the past year. “

“There is a lot of focus and attention on the loss of learning, or the waste of teaching time. Certainly, it is important that we meet the academic needs of students, but if we do not control their socio-emotional learning and mental health needs, academics will never come, “she added.

“Everything about the fit”

Summer to fall can often be a difficult transition for students in general, noted Janine Domingues, clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute and responsible for curriculum development and professional training for its school and community programs.

“This first month of school is all about adjustment,” she told ABC News. “Now even more, it’s a whole different ball game.”

Students may experience anxiety and stress as they adjust to the classroom and a new routine, she said.

When Centennial High School in Corona, Calif., Welcomed students back to campus for their final term of last school year, it was an adjustment for some returning students for in-person learning, Josh Godinez, a school counselor and chairman of the board of the California Association of School Counselors, told ABC News.

“It was almost as if the isolation allowed them to almost sort of create a fantasy of what they remembered from school. And then showing up to the social distancing walls, only half of their class was there, everyone wearing masks, it wasn’t this image they created, “he said.” Things are starting to go back to normal, but not really back to normal.

As a counselor, Godinez said he works with students on an individual level to address any anxiety, apprehension, grief or fear the students are experiencing.

“There was no response when they returned to school,” he said.

A call for lasting change

By the fall, Centennial High School, which has about 3,300 students, will have recruited a new counselor, focusing on English learners, bringing them to nine in total, Godinez said.

The pandemic has helped bring more attention to the importance of mental health support in schools, especially as districts have federal funding that could be spent on more staff or training, and how schools can foster a healing-centered environment “by focusing on emotional well-being,” Domingues said.

“This year has kind of really helped move this mission forward,” she said.

The attention and funding come as schools nationwide are severely understaffed when it comes to support staff like social workers and psychologists, experts said.

The National Association of School Psychologists recommends a ratio of no more than 500 students per school psychologist. In the 2019-2020 school year, the national ratio was estimated to more than double, and only one state achieved the recommended ratio, the organization said.

The National Association of Social Workers and the American School Counselor Association both recommend a ratio of 250 students per social worker and counselor, which most states also fail to meet, according to a 2019 ACLU report. .

“We’ve had 100,000 traumatized school communities in this country,” Robert Boyd, president of the School-Based Health Alliance, which promotes school-based health centers in the United States, told ABC News. “We are approaching this with not enough behavioral health specialists at school.… We didn’t have it before the pandemic.”

Pandemic relief funds could help lower those ratios, experts ABC News spoke to said, although more rural areas often face a shortage of staff. Boyd’s organization is also focused on diversifying school support staff, who tend to be white women, he said.

Some schools may need to rely on community providers, said Vaillancourt Strobach. Trained grief counselors, for example, can include pastors and funeral directors, Boyd noted.

Beyond dealing with staff shortages, districts can expand their programs, but are unable to sustain them in the long term.

“Are we going to make a lot of really good progress because there has been so much attention to the importance of mental health in school, and then with the US bailout dollars reaching their limit, let’s- are we back to square one? ” said Vaillancourt Strobach.

Mental health professionals hope this spotlight will lead to lasting change and financial support, beyond the pandemic.

“We don’t need to focus on student mental health just because of COVID,” said Vaillancourt Strobach. “The need has always been there; as a nation, we are finally paying attention. “

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