How schools are racing to respond to a mental health crisis

Schools are staffing up and making other preparations as they brace for an expected surge in mental health needs when students return this fall
Credit: (Erica Seryhm Lee for Chalkbeat)
The pandemic has triggered a spike in student mental-health needs. “If it wasn’t evident before, it’s screaming in our face now,” one educator said.

It was the monotony that wore down Aisha Oyediran.

She woke up each school day, opened her laptop, stared at the screen — then eat, sleep, repeat. Add the stress of schoolwork and the loneliness of remote learning, and things started feeling bleak.

“It just kept going,” said Aisha, 17, who last year was a senior at Newark’s Central High School. “There was no end to it.”

Aisha managed to excel despite the pandemic dreariness and is now headed to Johns Hopkins University. Yet the prospect of returning to classrooms amid rising COVID-19 cases has stirred conflicting emotions.

“I’m very excited,” said Aisha, who moved to campus on Friday. “And also very scared.”

She isn’t alone. Many students are eager to finally reunite with friends and teachers, yet nervous about socializing and learning in the flesh. Some are still processing traumatic experiences they endured during the pandemic.

The turmoil of the past year, the anxiety-provoking return to classrooms, the pent-up demand for support — all that has experts predicting an unprecedented surge in student mental-health needs. Now, flush with federal money, schools are racing to respond by expanding mental health services that, in the past, often got short shrift.

“You can’t keep kicking the can down the road,” said George Worsley, a longtime school social worker in Newark. “If you do, the devastation is going to be monumental.”

‘Students are struggling’

The pandemic wasn’t great for anyone’s mental health. But for many vulnerable young people, it was disastrous.

In addition to the isolation and frustration of remote learning, many students from low-income families also faced difficulties getting online, uncertainty around food and housing, and pressure to help care for siblings or contribute financially. Black and Hispanic Americans, subject to disproportionately high unemployment and COVID-19 rates, also were more likely than white people to report anxiety and depression during the pandemic.

In addition, the debates about racism and images of police violence roiling the country took a psychic toll on many Black people.

“As a Black girl, it was kind of difficult to watch,” said Olufunsho Olaniyan, 18, a Newark student and fellow at The Gem Project, a youth-leadership program. “That’s not what you want to see: people who look like you dying all the time.”

Mental health problems among young people, already on the rise pre-pandemic, spiked over the past year. Teens reported feeling more stressed and disconnected, and mental health crises accounted for a larger share of children’s emergency room visits. All the while, students had less access to school-based social services and outlets such as sports, arts, and afterschool programs.

“If it wasn’t evident before, it’s screaming in our face now,” said Tahirah Crawford, director of college placement at People’s Prep Charter School, “students are struggling with a whole lot of things.”

The return to school should offer most students some relief, even if it means readjusting to old rules and routines. Yet students who actually preferred remote learning because it spared them from bullying or harsh discipline policies might dread going back. And even those eager to return can’t avoid fears of the delta variant and another round of school closures.

“The world is so unpredictable right now,” said Nivioska Bruce, director of school clinical interventions at CarePlus NJ, a nonprofit mental-healthcare provider. “That causes stress, and stress does a lot to the human body.”

‘We’re outnumbered here’

Many schools have not kept up with students’ soaring mental health needs.

In a survey last school year, 70% of elementary and middle school principals said they didn’t have enough mental-health professionals on staff to meet students’ needs. And existing staff are overwhelmed. In Newark, New Jersey’s largest school district, there are nearly 540 students for every counselor — more than twice the recommended number of students per counselor.

“We’re outnumbered here,” said Worsley, who’s retiring this month after five decades in the Newark school system. “It just became overwhelming.”

Congress has thrown a lifeline to schools in the form of pandemic-relief money, including some earmarked for mental health services. New Jersey set aside $30 million of its portion of the federal aid for mental health, and district leaders nationwide say they plan to use part of their allotments for that purpose.

But if districts use the federal money to boost staff, they will have to find some other way to fund those positions when the aid runs out — or else lay people off. And hiring itself could be a challenge.

“There’s a huge demand right now for mental-health professionals,” said Molly Fagan, executive director of Family and Children Services, a New Jersey social service agency. “They’re very much in short supply.”

The mental health staffers already in schools find that much of their time is spent providing legally mandated services and evaluations. That can leave students without diagnosed needs waiting in vain for help.

“It’s long been the case that there are far more kids who need services than actually receive them,” said Dr. Linda Raffaele Mendez, a professor of school psychology at Fairleigh Dickinson University.

Her university is trying to help address the staffing problem. Through a partnership with Newark Public Schools, graduate students will provide counseling in four of the district’s 60-plus schools this year.

What schools can do now

Schools don’t need to wait for reinforcements to start helping students when they return.

They can start by assessing students’ mental health needs, though some surveys require parental consent, which can be difficult to obtain for every student, Raffaele Mendez said. Teachers should also watch for unusual behavior, such as frequent absences or trips to the nurse’s office, which could be symptoms of anxiety or other mental health issues.

“Anxiety can present in a number of different ways,” she said. “Sometimes you might not be able to see it at all because kids can hide it pretty well.”

Teachers can promote mental health by having students practice deep breathing and meditation, and share their feelings during morning meetings. Educators also should tell students it’s fine to feel nervous or uncomfortable as they readjust to school, said Tonia Lloyd, who coaches students on resiliency.

“Everyone is experiencing some level of anxiety,” she said, “and that’s OK.”

Educators also can adopt a “trauma-informed” approach, which recognizes that children who’ve endured hardships might act out or shut down in the classroom, said Nivioska Bruce of CarePlus NJ.

“It’s not making an assumption that these kids are just being bad,” she said. “Take it a step further and try to find out what’s really going on.”

Schools can offer social-emotional learning, which trains students how to identify emotions, manage stress, and other healthy habits. People’s Prep plans to introduce “Wellness Wednesdays” this school year, where students will spend their advisory period studying those skills and practicing mindfulness and journaling.

“Resiliency and wellness are going to be especially important this school year,” said Nicolette Rittenhouse-Young, the school’s director of student support. That’s because students “have so much more on their plates — more stress, more loss, more changes and transitions.”

Viva White, a licensed clinical social worker whose son attends a Newark school, said she’s happy to see schools promoting self-help skills. But she emphasized that such skills aren’t substitutes for counseling and other support services. As schools reopen, families should demand that students get the mental health help they need.

“Everyone is going to need support,” she said, “because everyone is going through it.”

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