Adequately supporting student mental health is the second wave of the COVID-19 crisis

Student mental health goes virtual during a pandemic

Adequately supporting student mental health is the second wave of the COVID-19 crisis

The global COVID-19 crisis could pave the way for teletherapy to become more widespread among school mental health systems, adolescent mental health experts say.

Many students with existing therapy needs are seeking therapy via phone or online platforms, and social distancing and isolation orders have prompted others to seek counseling for new feelings of sadness and anxiety.

Student mental health experts and district leaders held a webinar, sponsored by Kognito, to highlight some of the virtual practices educators can put into place to support students through a range of emotions during quarantines and state-mandated distance learning.

Related content: 6 student mental health resources

“This could be the impetus for transformation in our healthcare system, and specifically in our school mental health system as well,” says Sharon Hoover, Ph.D, co-director of the National Center for School Mental Health, adding that the global pandemic could urge the system to move forward in its acceptance of telehealth.

Student emotions and mental health needs run the gamut.

While there isn’t much hard data yet to help mental health experts assess the pandemic’s true impact on student mental health, experts can draw some conclusions based on what they know about adolescent mental health in general in the context of a crisis, combined with what school professional are reporting.

It’s likely students could experience a range of emotions and struggles as they adjust to a “new normal,” including depression, uncertainty, anxiety, and fear. Much of this stems from a decrease in social connections with friends and positive adults, worries about family members falling ill, and grief related to anything from the cancellation of milestone events such as prom and graduation to more serious events such as deaths of family members.

School mental health professionals also say children may experience an increase to trauma exposure, such as anticipated increases in child abuse and neglect related to family stress.

On the other hand, some students may not experience as much negative impact, especially if their support systems are in place and if they feel reassured and buoyed by increased time with family.

“I think that so many systems are just in the stages of trying to figure out what the needs are and to meet those demands, and to really figure out the technologies needed to support their student population,” Hoover says. “We have a lot of mental health supports, such as school psychologists, school social workers, and school counselors who are eager to support students’ mental health needs but may be prohibited from doing so because they’re trying to figure out how to do it in an equitable way, or work through technology logistics.”

“I think we’ll see an increase in the demand for student mental health services,” says Dede Bailer, Ph.D, coordinator of school psychology services in Virginia’s Fairfax County Public Schools. “We’ve been out of school since March 13, and I think parents were first getting into the routine of taking over some academic responsibilities until we got our distance learning plan in place. I think mental health wasn’t at the forefront as much as it’s going to come to be, as people figure out how to maintain their social connectedness.”

“I think the first response was to make sure we got academics going, but this next wave is thinking about mental health and what we can do to support all students–not just our students who were already on our radar with mental health concerns. We want to make sure the strategies we come up with are available to all students,” says Nancy Lever, Ph.D, co-director of the National Center for School Mental Health.

How one district handles student mental health

In Fairfax County Public Schools, student mental health clinicians have reached out to every student in their caseloads already. Some students are finding that virtual counseling has unexpected benefits.

“The interesting thing we found out is that students who are reluctant to go to school-based mental health providers are not as reluctant to speak with someone they won’t see in the halls of the school,” Bailer says. “Once they connect through the school clinic, they understand that going to the school social worker isn’t scary.”

The district has started its Parent Clinic and Student Clinic–a program offering opportunities for parents to schedule a 30-minute consultation with a mental health professional for themselves or for their middle or high school student. Last year, the district provided more than 400 appointments for parents. The program offers materials and resources, including opportunities with community partners.

“That network of partners is critical to the success of the work that we do in the schools,” says Bailer.

“This is a great opportunity to talk about social awareness and equity issues with students, and talk about how you maintain and build relationships in a distance learning environment, along with how you make responsible decisions,” Bailer says. “There were a fair number of folks not making responsible decisions about social distancing, and it’s a great opportunity to take what’s happening in our environment today and teach SEL skills.”

And while academics took center stage as schools scrambled to figure out how to keep educating students in the midst of a global health pandemic, educators didn’t forget about student mental health needs.

“It seemed our first major emphasis was on preparing our distance learning plans for the academic side,” says Bailer. “But our school counseling, psychology, and social work professionals are working together to figure out how we could create a virtual platform infused with social and emotional lessons.”

District mental health professionals identified time in synchronous learning schedules where SEL lessons were available, and a team developed SEL activities for parents to complete with their students. School psychologists, social workers, and counselors have worked with teachers to connect social and emotional learning principles with what students learn on a daily basis.

The district also offers extensive faculty, parent, and student mental health resources such as its Healthy Minds blog, Kognito training, community partnerships, and more.

Laura Ascione